clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Helen Rosner

Filed under:

Our Fancy Foods, Ourselves

Three days at the world's greatest assemblage of exotic, expensive, absurd, and occasionally delicious snacks


et me tell you about a place where the coconut water never runs dry, there is a gluten-free version of everything, even gluten, the cookies are filled with vegetables, and everything is free.

Two years ago, I was visiting a friend in San Francisco who had a class to teach, so I planned to hang around Yerba Buena Gardens, get high, and read. Right across the street was the Moscone Center, where signs in red and tan announced the "Fancy Food Winter Show." I saw men wheeling pallets of snacks inside, and — already having done the getting high part of my plan — I wanted very much to go with them. I pulled up the show’s press policy on my phone and decided to wing it; fifteen minutes and one conversation with a totally chill press lady later, I was on a sprawling trade show floor, popping Guinness-flavored Jelly Belly beans.

The Fancy Food Show is a twice-a-year occurrence, winters in San Francisco and summers in New York. In both cities, the scene is the same: a vast concrete plain where rows of booths stretch to the horizon under a fluorescent sun, each dedicated to a single, niche, specialty food item or brand, each handing out samples. It’s like visiting 5.8 Costcos, but just the samples. Really good samples. Rich wedding samples. There are little cups filled with Iberian charcuterie or Maine lobster, cubes of Wagyu beef flown in from Japan, a global variety of chocolatiers and cheese­mongers, all competing for just a corner of your stomach. An energetic young man offers passersby calamansi juice cocktails, which is like lemonade if lemons tasted even better. There are crackers made out of quinoa, pasta made out of quinoa, and crackers made out of pasta. Even if you could eat an infinite amount of food, you could not walk fast enough to try everything before you collapsed in exhaustion, felled by a thousand bites.

This is how expensive cookies flow to gentri­fy­ing bodegas, how one trend stamps out an­other before succumb­ing to the next wave.

This is abundance on a fantastical scale, and the Summer Fancy Food Show 2016 is the biggest yet. For three days, more than 2,500 specialty purveyors spread their wares across New York’s 840,000-square-foot Javits Center, and despite whatever obligations to ethical journalism I have, I cannot try them all. So I bop arbitrarily from one booth to another, lured inexcusably and semi-consciously by prepackaged samples, nice typefaces, and/or conventionally attractive product reps. At the grocery store, you don’t have to dodge the sad eyes of someone who has poured their soul and savings into developing a milk-free caramel, as you pass it over for no reason; at the Fancy Food Show, it is the harsh reality. True awe comes at a price.

"Fancy" is an arbitrary descriptor for food, as is "specialty," with which it is used interchangeably. The Specialty Food Association — the trade organization that puts on the show — lists its first objective as "Define and defend the ideals that ‘specialty foods’ uphold," though it doesn’t bother to actually define those ideals on the page where it lays out its "vision." Specialty foods seem to be anything that isn’t a staple — so not bread, except it’s okay if it’s fancy bread, and not milk, unless it’s fancy milk — so maybe "fancy" really is the right word. In practice, specialty food is the kind of club where only people who belong want to join; some fanciness is included in the $3500 price for a ten-by-ten booth at the show. A truly fancy 500-square-foot booth runs $17,000. Your product is specialty if you say it is, and you charge enough for it.

For a small or medium size food company, an occasion like the Fancy Food Show is an opportunity to audition for the big time. Catch the eye of the right distributor and your sparkling elderflower beverage or gluten-free cassava tortillas or jicama chips could be rolling out on Whole Foods shelves nationwide. The Fancy Food Show is how expensive cookies flow to gentrifying bodegas, how one trend stamps out another before succumbing to the next wave.

Media attention is a tertiary consideration to acquiring distribution and networking — it’s probably even lower on the scale than scoping out the competition. It doesn’t help that my badge (which precedes me into every convention conversation) reads "MALCOLM HARRIS, EATER," with "PRESS" in smaller type below. "Eater" is a word that tilts heads, and I start introducing myself with "The website, not the occupation," which doesn’t make a lot of sense but seems nonetheless clarifying.

Kristin Cook, a marketing manager for Lucero olive oil, spots me eyeing her white sample envelopes for a second too long, and asks if I want one. Of course I do; it’s fancy and free. But there are probably a hundred olive oils in front of me, and I confess that I don’t know how to justify choosing one. She explains that Lucero doesn’t just sell the oil — the Crane family, who run the company, grows the olives in Corning, California, and has for almost 70 years.

At the grocery store, you don’t have to dodge the sad eyes of someone who has poured their soul and savings into a milk-free caramel.

The folded paper spoon she hands me has a tiny yellow-green puddle of what is, hand to God, the best olive oil I have ever tasted. Until this moment I had been completely unaware that any one olive oil could be so vastly better than other olive oils. Lucero is so good, it makes the stuff that José Andrés puts his name on — also available at the show — taste like absolutely nothing at all. The oil is made from the Ascolano olive, Cook tells me, and it is "huge in Japan" after winning two gold medals at the Olive Japan International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition in 2013; ever since, Japan has imported that single variety of oil by the caseload.

The booth placements are occasionally cruel. Stroopwafels are the undeclared Dutch national cookie, and they’re one of the most popular product sub-categories at the Fancy Food Show. An employee of Daelmans Stroopwafels, the century-old Dutch bakery group that is also world’s leading stroopwafel purveyor, explains to me that their larger cookie is best enjoyed after warming it atop of a cup of coffee, until the caramel sandwiched between the layers is gooey. Though this is its first year on the American market, the company’s size grants it a critical advantage over the upstarts. After talking with him, pocketing sealed packets of both the large and smaller sizes of cookie, I slide to the next booth. On the table is a printed-out Forbes article about the father-daughter team making their dream of a gluten-free stroopwafel a reality. They call it Swoffle. The daughter, Julia Paino, offers me a toothpicked sample; how can I turn her down when we both know I just spent a solid minute chatting with the Daelmans guy? I eat it.

There’s a tension between the need to showcase the way a product looks on the shelves, and accidentally encouraging convention-goers to make off with hundreds of dollars in inventory. Some booths put up signs like "FOR DISPLAY," or "NOT SAMPLES," or "DO NOT TAKE PRODUCTS." Were anyone so determined, they could make off with pricey chocolate by the cubic foot, just by playing dumb at booth after booth. But if the people at the big, glossy white booth hawking LaCroix sparkling water don’t want attendees to help themselves to full-sized cans, then they shouldn’t use unlocked and fully stocked refrigerators as displays. That’s basically entrapment.

The Greek yogurt maker Fage, on the other hand, doesn’t skimp on samples, or even bother with the pretense of exchange. Its huge display, much bigger than the average booth, is arranged like an ice-cream store, with servers standing over an L-shaped array of glass-covered coolers, passing out full-sized yogurts to a line of people who already know about Fage. Greek yogurt is fully mainstream now, and some projections have Fage (which has a quarter of the American market) reaching a billion dollars in annual US sales within the decade. The Fancy Food Show sometimes feels like a middle-school science fair, but one where the rich kids can buy more display space. The Fage booth’s neon blue glow starts to look sinister. Is Fage leveraging their large capital advantage to crowd out smaller yogurts and non-dairy yogurt alternatives in the struggle for Fancy Food Show digestive real estate? Maybe not. But also definitely.

His slogan, "Let the Greeks have their philosophers, leave the yogurt to us," could be reasonably interpreted as either a boast or a plea.

I don’t like Greek yogurt; I think it’s too thick. But I don’t dislike it as much as Atanas Valev, who has devoted his life to hating it. Valev founded Trimona Bulgarian Yogurt, whose slogan, "Let the Greeks have their philosophers, leave the yogurt to us," could be reasonably interpreted as either a boast or a plea. If anyone has a national yogurt claim, Valev tells me, it’s the Bulgarians: One of the microbes involved in yogurt production is Lactobacillus bulgaricus, named by its discoverer, Stamen Grigorov, for his homeland. "There is no such thing as ‘Greek’" — Valev curls his fingers into air quotes — "yogurt. It’s not like Scottish whiskey or French Champagne. It’s just strained yogurt."

Valev now leads the Greek yogurt backlash with a culture he personally brought over from Bulgaria twenty-five years ago. "Some of my customers are Greek," he says, clarifying that he has nothing against the Greeks as people. "They tell me this is how they had it growing up." The Bulgarian yogurt tastes like regular yogurt to me — it’s primarily a vehicle for the dab of fruit puree Valev has placed in each sample cup — but maybe a post-Soviet brand and a no-strain label can take the Greeks down a peg.

Labels are very important at the Fancy Food Show. Big corporations dominate the existing categories, so specialty producers have to create something new or do something old with new certifications. No one at the show is more passionate about eating organic than Lindsey Frick of Feel Good Dough. Seeing my indecision and my press badge as I walk past her booth, she calls out. "Would your readers be interested in what’s going on with organic yeast?" she asks.

Sure you are. Red Star Yeast is introducing the first domestic American organic yeast soon, and Feel Good is one of its first partners. Apparently, most leavened products calling themselves organic have been slipping through an FDA loophole that allows them to use non-organic yeast; Feel Good imports its organic yeast from Germany. Why does it matter? "They feed non-organic yeast with GMO corn," Frick tells me. "If you want to eat 100 percent organic, you have to check for organic yeast." She says that non-organic yeast had been giving her constant anxiety, but Feel Good makes her feel — well, good. With Red Star’s new product imminent, it seems like truly organic American breads will soon be easier to find. I’m not sure what that does to Feel Good’s market advantage — Frick doesn’t know either — but the prospect doesn’t appear to bring her down.

Until this moment I had been completely unaware that any one olive oil could be so vastly better than other olive oils.

"Paleo" is another popular label. The slogan for Hu Chocolate, a maker of paleo chocolate bars, is "Get back to human," by which the brand means caveman post-fire, the most human of human epochs. Since paleo is a diet based on a speculative anthropological fantasy, some of the rules are tricky. Besides no milk and preservatives, what makes a chocolate bar paleo?

"We use an unrefined coconut sugar," Zach Brown of Hu tells me. "If you use cane sugar, it’s not paleo." I ask why. "Well, if it’s unrefined," he answers. "I guess if caveman got a sugar root and left it out in the sun, you could have done it at any time in the world, so that would be paleo." I still have no idea what the heck this guy is talking about. "We’re really big on this idea of inclusivity and that everyone should be eating this correct way," he adds. These inclusive chocolate bars retail for between $5.90 and $6.50 which, to be fair, is not actually on the higher end for fancy chocolate bars.

Bob Moore, founder of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, is posing for pictures. There’s something uncanny about his physical presence, since his face decorates entire supermarket sections, his strange grains and shredded coconut filling every shelf. The allure of gluten alternatives has made him an icon in the specialty food world, and in the flesh, dressed in a red jacket with his trademark cap and white beard, he is the show’s own Santa Claus. There will be a line for Bob all three days. He came last year too.

The show is taking place only days after the citizens of the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union — including its trade agreements — and like many other nations, the UK has a heavily branded half-aisle devoted to hyping its exports. (Booths at the Fancy Food Show are in sizable part sponsored by various governments, with export giants like Italy and France staking out giant fiefdoms.) On day one, when I say "Brexit" at the small information booth for the UK Food & Drink Exporters Association, I am handed a three-sentence statement printed on thick glossy paper:

Now that the result of the referendum is known, the FDEA believes it is essential that steps are taken to protect the interests of food and drink exporters. Given the importance of the EU to the UK food and drink industry — with over 70% of our exports going to the EU in 2015 — it is vital that access to this market is maintained.

We will be working closely with our partners and government to ensure that the interests of the food and drink sector are high on the agenda.

Elsa Fairbanks

By day three, the plan has changed. There is no more statement sheet, and Irene Kerrison of the UK Trade & Investment Great British Food Unit does not want to talk about Brexit. "We’re still a member of the European Union, so we keep working," she says. "Keep calm and carry on," I bait her into adding. "Stiff upper lip." At least the Brits never have to face total catastrophe at a loss for words.

In a possible sign of things to come, Great Britain and Northern Ireland share common Union Jack branding, while the proximate Scotland section has its own purple-pink display. Though the Scottish Nationalist Party is still contemplating a post-Brexit independence referendum, the Scotland Fancy Food area already looks sovereign. "We’re part of the greater UK contingent," Juan-Carlos Jeffrey, the kilt-clad Scottish Development International Vice President for Food and Drink, reassures me. This is true insofar as Scotland remains (for now) part of the UK, but when I consult the map on the Fancy Food Show app, the Scottish booth stretches into a small rectangle, bolded but unlabeled, between the UK and neighboring New Zealand. A breakaway move? I ask Jeffrey if we should expect a Scottish national booth soon. "You never know," he says, trying to redirect my attention to a bowl of haggis-flavored potato chips.

The haggis chips, made by Mackie’s of Scotland, are actually excellent, like an improved barbecue flavor. Based on these chips I would like to try haggis, but nobody brought any. Maybe Scotland will have the confidence to export it stateside once it gets the Queen’s boot off its neck.

The most exciting section at the Fancy Food Show is an alley tucked in on the near left corner of the downstairs area, called "New Brands on The Shelf." These are the show’s underdogs, small booths for companies or products under a year old. It’s not uncommon for company owners to work the floor here, but few of the New Brands have staff to spare, and the result is something like a themed episode of Shark Tank, stretched into a line: eager snack inventors ready to pounce on anyone who will listen to their pitch.

The brownies and blondies from Pure Genius Provisions are a sort of Fancy Food product par excellence. They’re not only vegan, kosher, non-GMO, gluten-free, and "school-safe" (no nuts or tree-nuts), but creator Nancy Kalish tells me the bars are 40 percent garbanzo beans. So far, the brand hasn’t settled on how much to stress this last fact. "I usually wait until after they taste it, and then I say, ‘You just ate chickpeas!’ and they’re like ‘Whaaaat?’" Kalish does not try to fool me — and I’m not sure she would have succeeded, since to me they taste like the food bricks that poor people in dystopian sci-fi eat for every meal. "We run at about a 95 percent approval rate," she says. "Every once in a while we get someone who really likes their brownies made with butter, and eggs, and flour, and sugar." I am, I’m sorry to say, one of those people.

I ask Kalish if she had tried the "dessert hummus" from Delighted By, another garbanzo-based treat a few stalls down from hers in the New Brands section. Kalish nods. "I believe it’s the year of the pulse, and chickpeas are a pulse," she says. That night I look it up and she is right: The United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of the Pulse. The edible legume seed lobby has certainly found a sexy brand for dried beans and lentils in the name "pulse," though the official IYP2016 hashtag #LovePulses is a little bit over the line. Delighted By’s dessert hummus, however, is executed well, especially for an idea that I’m not totally sure shouldn’t be killed immediately. It comes in four flavors — Brownie Batter, Snickerdoodle, Orange-Ginger, and Chocolate Chip — and they all taste like both hummus and frosting at the same time. If people started eating hummus frosting all the time, I wonder, would they be happier? Would they, like Lindsey Frick and her non-GMO yeast, feel good?

In practice, specialty food is the kind of club where only people who belong want to join; some fanciness is included in the price for a ten-by-ten booth at the show.

Revolution Gelato out of Atlanta won best dairy product in this year’s Flavor of Georgia Annual Food Product Contest, which is especially impressive because the product contains no dairy. Rather, it’s a frozen dessert made out of coconuts and cashews. Founder Jared Olkin grew up in his mom’s homemade ice cream shop, but a Michael-Pollan-inspired conversion to a plant-centered diet pushed him to cook up an alternative. "It’s a way to make a difference without changing lifestyle," Olkin tells me. Is that what Revolution is about? "Yeah, that’s why we came up with the slogan ‘You can have it all.’ The idea is you really don’t have to compromise on anything."

This refusal to compromise between very specific dietary restrictions and particular beloved foods is the creative energy behind many products that make it to the world of fancy food, and no-dairy ice cream is a predictably crowded category. I personally prefer Jawea’s Horchata flavor — also made with coconut — to Revolution’s Cardamom. (Hot tip: Based on this year’s product lineup, horchata is the next dulce de leche.)

Some of the New Brand gimmicks are smartly conceived. I ask the people at Elephantea why their tea supports elephant conservation in particular, and they explain that in Sri Lanka, where their tea is grown, they use elephants to clear land. If a tea is going to stand for something, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be compensation for pachyderm labor. The nonprofit they donate to, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, looks legit.

The charitable branding of Doctor Pickle, on the other hand, remains beyond my understanding. CEO Harold Pitts is too muscular for his white coat; with his gelled grey hair, he looks like a late-career porn star doing a hospital scene. "Hey little boy," he calls to me, "Try my pickle!" I ask Pitts about the sign on his display that promises a share of the proceeds for child victims of 9/11. "We got into quite a pickle on 9/11," he says. Later I find out that Pitts was a fireman and first-responder at the towers before he turned to pickling full-time. His "Pickle with a Purpose" endeavor aims to provide everyone who experienced childhood trauma on 9/11 with access to transcendental meditation. The pickles are pretty good.

If I had to estimate, I’d say a third of Fancy Food products are trying to solve a problem. Whether it’s arsenic-free Mighty Rice or Way Better sprouted grain tortilla chips, something must be added or subtracted. Self-expression is less of a priority. Jessica Spaulding, founder of Harlem Chocolate Factory, is an exception. The daughter of "health nuts," Spaulding tells me that she had to take chocolate seriously if she wanted it in the house. One failed chocolate startup later ("All my friends got very nice samples"), she is at the show with three bars. The best is "Striver’s Row," which features black currants and "champagne" popping candy, and is meant to evoke a Harlem Renaissance dinner party.

"I’ve lived my whole life in Harlem," Spaulding says, "and whenever my mom wanted to be fancy we went to Londel’s for dinner right near Striver’s Row. And I took the Studio Museum in Harlem’s photography program in high school and I learned about James Van Der Zee, and that all went into the bar." If cashews can be ice cream, why can’t chocolate be art? The bar feels composed — not for health or digestibility, but as an eating experience.

On some of the booths sit one or more statuettes, in gold, silver, or bronze. They look suspiciously similar to Oscars, except these figures wear chefs' hats and hold lidded platters. They are Sofi (pronounced so-fee) awards, given to the top achievers in a flight of different Fancy Food categories like "hot beverage," "cracker," and "jam, preserve, honey, nut butter." Victors are selected and announced before the show, so there’s a no suspense or drama, and winners can be sure to attend. I go to congratulate Bradley Bennett of Pacific Pickle Works for winning Sofi gold with his pickled "Brussizzle Sprouts" in this year’s appetizer division, beating out Mama Lil’s Hungarian Goathorn Peppers.

Bennett tells me he got his start in 2011, after twenty years in the software industry, when he decided to devote himself to "west-coast pickles." The Brussizzle Sprouts, he says, like all Pacific products, was named via crowdsourcing on their Facebook page. "It’s a fun play on words, it has some pop-culture references to it." I try to get him to say "Snoop Dogg," which he refuses to do. "There’s a particular person out there," he says. "Rap culture has a person who emphasizes certain… izzles."

The proprietor stands back looking amused as the specialty food community turns into a flock of seagulls trying to share a bagel.

Bennett’s neighbor in the California regional section is — surprise, surprise — another ex-techie. Arawak Farms founder Lloyd J. Vassell has been selling pepper sauces and spicy fruit spreads based on indigenous West Indian recipes since he quit his corporate branding job at Sun Microsystems. His newest product is his grandmother’s jerk pepper sauce; Vassell says he’s the only one who got the recipe, because he always loved it the most. So she wrote it down for you? "No!" He laughs. "She gave me a jar. I had to take it to my food scientist and she figured it out. Grandma never wrote down anything." The sauce is incredible: It has a clean, translucent heat that doesn’t hide any of the allspice. I walk halfway across the hall before coming back for another paper-spoonful.

Some of the booths are organized regionally, some nationally, and many miscellaneously. With the exception of a cheese cluster, they are not grouped thematically, which seems strange until you think about it. Trying to sample all the peanut butters in a row would be taxing. Still, HomePlate Peanut Butter would stick out for its baseball connection and for including sugar. Founded by a group of retired pro ballplayers, HomePlate is supposed to be a happy medium between brands like Skippy and expensive, all-natural two-ingredient peanut butter — perfect for broke minor leaguers. Team member Caleigh Bressler explains, "The way the industry evolved is the mega-houses had good products, but then they looked for ways to cut costs with hydrogenated oils and corn syrup." She looks at me seriously, "There are brands that actually have an ingredient called rapeseed oil. Which is terrifying. No one wants to feed their kid something with rapeseed oil." The HomePlate performs as advertised. I make a note to give the Scottish Rapeseed Oil Group a chance to respond, but I forget.

By the afternoon of the third and final day of the show, attendees are getting restless. Not wanting to ship inventory home, many booths begin putting their whole display up for grabs. The first I notice is Taffy Town, the Jelly Belly of saltwater taffy, with flavors like chicken-and-waffle. The proprietor stands back looking amused as the specialty food community turns into a flock of seagulls trying to share a bagel; we suddenly lack the species capacity for collective organization. I stand in line a few people back from the wall of taffy bins, until I realize that I am not in line. There is no line. This a taffy free-for-all — a taffy pull, if that weren’t already a different thing. I politely squish my way through and end up next to the cola flavor. I take as much as seems reasonable under the circumstances, which is kind of a lot.

At the booth for the Kagoshima Prefecture beef exporter Starzen International, a friendly woman fries up pieces of Wagyu while she explains that Kobe beef is just one kind of Wagyu, produced in the Hyōgo Prefecture. The people of Kagoshima think our Wagyu is even better, she tells four or five of us, none in a position to argue both because we lack the expertise and our mouths are full of what we are told is the world’s best steak. The one-piece-per-person guideline goes out the window; I take a bite, then three more. I struggle with the decision not to carry away handfuls of meat, though there is plenty.

Not everyone at the Fancy Food Show will be back next year. There are winners and losers, which seems unavoidable but sad. Consumers won’t get to experience this kind of product diversity at the market, and the competition might not be arbitrary, but it’s also not just about flavor. I look around for Ouzon — an ouzo-flavored soda that was my favorite last year — but it isn’t here. According to its website, the company still hasn’t managed to get the product into New York City groceries. On the other hand, Tate’s Cookies is a success story, a Southampton, New York bakery propelled to national prominence despite being a picture-perfect example of what happens when you bake with too much butter. A map on the Tate’s handout boasts of its market domination via On Air with Ryan Seacrest regional ads.

In a better world, many, many more people would have the time and access to resources to develop and share their food inventions without having to win at the Fancy Food Show. There’s no way that being an ex-financier or a former software engineer is actually correlated with culinary inspiration, as one might suspect after browsing the booths. And even if there really are only ten people in the country who want to devote their lives to their coconut ice cream recipes, eight will probably to be forced to give up and do something less interesting. Can’t we afford more of them? If nearly half of American jobs are going to be automated in the foreseeable future, don’t we have room for both the Swoffle and dessert hummus? Capitalism produces diversity, only to bludgeon most of it to death with Ryan Seacrest’s toothy face.

A man at the Bauli Authentic Italian pastries booth indicates for a moment that the full-size bags of custard-filled mini croissants are fair game, and the rack is almost clear in moments. The man turns to his colleague: "Nope, fuck, this is not working," he says, and he scrambles to reassert control over the display. Two middle-aged women walk away quickly, tucking their packages into their purses. One says to her friend, "I think you were only supposed to take one." The other scoffs, "What did he expect? This is New York."

Malcolm Harris is a freelance writer and an editor at The New Inquiry.
Photos: Helen Rosner
Editor: Matt Buchanan


Swedish Candy Is Suddenly Inescapable


The Land Back Movement Isn’t Just Focused on Ancestral Grounds — It’s Fighting to Preserve and Restore Foodways Too

Eater Explains

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Girl Scout Cookies