Porcetta, Haggis, and Padma at the Fancy Food Show
A day at the Fancy Food Show is kind of like a day spent at Disneyland—the foodie world’s equivalents of Mickey and Minnie are everywhere. Look, there’s Padma Lakshmi and Rick Bayless! With 180,000-plus products on display, anyone who treats food more seriously than, say, their child’s future, might find the event overwhelming. Free food samples and new products designed to empty your wallets are everywhere, while buyers and distributors conduct their gustatory business. Naturally, the convention is packed. My first sample at the show (held from June 27th – 29th) is the frozen, oven-ready turducken from Tony Chachere’s. It comes in a dixie cup and is splendid. Everywhere you go, models, PR temps and the occasional industry employee tries to get your attention. Here is an impossibly tanned, statuesque woman handing you an Austrian-made Octain Brain Bar. There are smiling young things offering guides to Egypt’s food industry.
The Javits Center, where the convention is takes place, is a mess. It’s the last year the event is being held in New York, due to a slew of business issues. Following in the footsteps of Top Chef, the summer show is relocating to Washington D.C. next year. Despite Michel Richard’s best efforts, D.C. is still not a restaurant town. This may help.
Did I just spy a guy dressed in a hot-dog-on-a-stick like outfit playing ukelele to promote some gourmet firm? Sure did.
International foods are big business here. Many countries opt for huge, collective pavilions where everyone can discover new trends at once. Some stereotypes hold true. The German pavilion is impeccably clean and has a foosball table (Germans are great at soccer, get it?). The Israeli vendors are impossibly brusque, the Brazilians are bronzed, and the Italians thumb their noses at U.S. hygiene standards with their near-total lack of toothpicks. Several well-dressed, very Midwestern buyers are very confused at having to pick up their porchetta by hand.
Walking through the foreign stalls, I learn valuable lessons about foreign economies. Tunisia’s food exports? Olive oil and more olive oil. Cyprus loves selling halloumi (grillable cheese) to Americans who love eating it. Indian chocolate chip cookies are unsurprisingly exotic, but surprisingly delicious. But it’s the celebrity chefs who are the stars of the show. Mexican guru Rick Bayless is cooking tacos to promote his Frontera Foods. While his chicken taco is perfectly wonderful, it doesn’t quite match up to the al pastor from my favorite Sunset Park joint. Padma is here promoting her Easy Exotic line. She is impossibly beautiful in person. How Salman Rushdie ever recovered is a mystery to me. Padma makes surprised eye contact with me. It’s less because I’m handsome (I’m not) than because I’m the only person within 20 feet not pretending to text while secretly taking her picture. (I left my phone at home and my camera needs batteries.)
Meanwhile, no one seems to recognize poor Paul Prudhomme. Maybe it’s because he’s skinny now. I stroll by Florence Fabricant from New York Times and my friend swears she saw Lidia Bastianich in the bathroom. There are the usual, “Did they really think of that?” food moments. Over in the Scottish pavilion, Mackie’s offers Haggis & Cracked Black Pepper potato chips. They taste of haggis which turns out being a good thing. Lazy Dog Cookies has what they call a pup-pie, essentially a pizza for dogs. Oklahoma’s Neighbor’s Coffee has samples of snickerdoodle and coffee cake-flavored coffee that turns out to be caffeine-fueled bliss. It is not just food here, either. The Mexican pavilion seems to be mostly tequila vendors. Meanwhile, a company named McNab’s offers samples of energy pills and drinks directly across from the South African consulate’s television, tuned to the World Cup. It’s the perfect location for an energy pill vendor and a crowd is grabbing free samples with gusto from the overwhelmed yet happy proprietors. Other publicity stunts can be found everywhere. Jelly Belly took the trouble to make a giant Mona Lisa composed entirely out of jelly beans. Peanut Butter & Co. has a hyperactive fellow dressed up as a monkey in soccer cleats.
After a while, one gives into the Fancy Food Show flow. Instead of visiting specific stalls, you wander up and down the aisles. You discover new foods. Here is “nduja,” an Italian hot sausage spread. Here are naan pizzas, with paneer cheese and cilantro chutney on a bread crust. And there are the old classics: Pitch-perfect samples of porchetta, cave-aged cheddar cheese, and snacks of every variety. The entire time, million-dollar food deals are taking place around you. You don’t care though, the prosciutto is delicious.
Top photo courtesy of Gina Pace via CBS News