I arrived at the Moscone Center yesterday morning at 7:30. I was, it seemed, the only person in the North Hall who wasn't either sitting quietly in a registration booth or scurrying about with boxes of food, portable gas burners or Chinese musical instruments. Cursing myself for unnecessarily missing an extra half hour of sleep, I approached the Press Registration Booth slowly, not wanting to look over-eager. I found this attitude a difficult one to strike since, being the only non-employee in the building, my mere presence there at that hour betrayed me. The woman at the press station smiled and, as if not to wake me or herself said gently, "Good morning. Why are you here so early?"
"Oh, I thought I'd just beat the crowd." Having said that I then realized that, unless one is a baker of bread or breakfast pastries, food professionals are not typically known for rising early and shining. I thought it best to say nothing more before my already-tenuous claim to a press badge was revoked. I left the building, got some coffee and returned, casually, at 8.01.
Crossing over into the South Hall, I managed to snag a second row seat to hear Eric Schlosser's Keynote speech: Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal. Before his arrival, an ex-nurse warmed up the audience-- at least, those of us lucky to have been within earshot of her-- by condemning those still practicing her former profession. I did my best to not get sucked into conversation with her, looking forward instead to being profoundly depressed by Mr. Schlosser's speech.
Upon arrival, Mr. Schlosser's first action was, in fact, to offer an advance apology for delivering such a depressing talk so early in the morning. In refernece to his best-selling book, he said it was not so much fast food that interested him as it was the nation itself.
"Food is the bedrock of society. It defines us as a nation."
"The selling, sourcing, marketing and production of food all have a great impact on the nation," he continued. McDonald's, his primary example, has not only dramatically changed the way America eats, but the way it farms and sources labor. The fast food industrial system is not reliant on the individual-- it seeks uniformity, conformity. "One taste worldwide" is the alarmingly appropriate slogan for McDonald's.
Schlosser continued by explaining the ways in which McDonald's markets itself. One example I found very grim. Noting that brand loyalty can be developed in human beings at as young as two years of age, McDonald's has targeted children in its advertising, assuring itself future generations of loyal customers. Schlosser claims that one in every three toys recieved by a child in this country comes from Mc Donalds. This information alone was not terribly disturbing, but the studies he cited linking the habitual eating of fast food to childhood obesity (one in three American children is considered at-risk), diabetes and heart disease killed my caffeine buzz.
"Can we market healthy brands to children?" He asked.
From here, Schlosser's talk took a more positive turn. He noted that the fast food culture that had its beginnings in mid-20th-Century southern California is gradually giving way to a more thoughtful way of eating that has its roots in the Bay Area. "People are starting to read labels." People are beginning to care again about what they put into their bodies.
In closing, he commended the Food Show attendees for there efforts at getting healthier, more natural foods out into the marketplace and hoped that, someday, "fancy food won't be considered fancy anymore."
My general sense of culinary doom for this country temporarily soothed, I made my way to the convention floor.
I thought I had prepared myself. Previous attendees offered advice like "Get a game plan" and "Just pace yourself." I now know that one can never be too prepared.
The show lasts three days for a reason- it's huge. Trying to take it all in over the course of one morning and afternoon like I did is like trying to take in all the sights of Western Europe over one holiday weekend. By 3 o'clock, both my belly and my brain were full. How much chocolate, cheese and hot sauce can a one take? I cannot recount everything I saw there, we'd all be in tears, though yours would most likely be shed due to boredom. Instead, I will limit myself to sharing a few highlights-- and low.
I thought a bit of hot chocolate might be a good way to start the day, though the initial sight of what I thought was a booth caught on fire made me want to start for the exit before I'd barely gotten underway.
Over in the Australian foods section, I sampled hot sauces with a man from Redback Chili Products, whose Horrible Haggis's collection of chilli (their spelling) sauces caught my eye. The following label depicts dominatrix nuns whipping a bare Bill Clinton while a cigar smoking Monica Lewinsky looks on. Another sauce label in their collection suggests using their product for testicular massage. I admired their ballsy marketing.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the show was encountering food items I'd never heard of before. My hands-down favorite was the Carica from Chile. The fruit tastes similar to a mango, but with softer, almost pear-like notes. The syrup from the jar would be great for mixing cocktails (attn: Stephanie).
The Yumberry is, as I was told three times in the two minutes I visited the booth, not a lychee nut. The flavor of the juice was good, almost cranberry-like. I was just skeptical of its name. I suspected a Chinese-to-English "sounds-like-a-good-idea" marketing ploy. Being a techno-and- marketing-savvy fruit, it has its own website. You can read the "The Legendary of Yumberry" there at your leisure.
After spending enough time sampling detoxifying fruits and their juices, I came upon a stand that was offering precisely the opposite. I thought a cocktail might take some of the edge off the convention. It (they) didn't. I was disappointed to see mostly Cosmopolitans, the I-lack-any-sort-of-imagination-so-I'll-just order-what-everybody-else-is-ordering cocktail of yesteryear and it's new replacement for America's hopelessly sheep-like drinkers, the mojito. I sampled a bloody mary mix that was so unbelievably salty (and I love salt) that it sent me running back for more Yumberry juice. Remind me never to trust a company that doesn't care about spelling.
One of the last booths I visited was also one one my favorites. Fish-in-a-tube by Mills from Norway. The smoked salmon and mackerel were very tasty and, I would imagine, very good to have on hand. I took some samples and plan on putting one in my medicine cabinet.
My energy sapped, my brain and belly full, I resolved to leave. On my way to the exit, I ran into Pauline, a regular bar patron at my place of employment. In a lovely and much needed-by-me reversal of roles, she offered me a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I thought this was most likely the best way to end my day at the 32nd Annual Fancy Food Show. We chatted for a few minutes until I had finished my wine, I thanked her and then left.
I praise my own ignorance for much of the enjoyment I experienced at the show. Apparently, photography is frowned upon. Surprisingly, only two people asked me not to take photos. I thought it was because their products were so horrible that they were possibly ashamed. Now I know better.
If taking photos is frowned upon, taking product samples is definitely taboo, which is why the FFS only offered conventioneers clear plastic bags. Though completely ignorant of that fact at the time, I am glad I put the bottle of ouzo that a lovely woman from Chios gave me in my messenger bag. Efkharisto for that.
Though, at the moment, I never want to see another bottle of olive oil or new, exciting tea beverage in my life, I understand what a great resource the Fancy Food Show is for everyone involved. The opportunity to sell one's product and make money is there to be certain. So is the chance to spot trends (like the exploding interest in teas), get inspired (though the pina colada flavored cheese straws need some work) and generally connect with the rest of the food world-- and I do mean world. I would happily go again, knowing now what to focus on (trends, ideas) and what to avoid (stop eating so much cheese).
The convention lasts until tomorrow, January 23. Perhaps by then the more seasoned veterans of the show will have exhausted themselves with all the eating and schmoozing and selling and buying. They will go back to their hotel rooms (or, if they are particularly good at schmoozing and selling, someone else's hotel room) sated, finished with the convention and San Francisco for another year. Or should I say two years? The 33rd Annual Winter Fancy Food Show will be hosted in San Diego.