We have been attending the Fancy Food Show for close to 30 years, which means that we were building our specialty food business and learning about all of the wonderful foods that many of us now take for granted through the amazing years of the 1970′s, 1980′s and 1990′s.
These were glorious decades for specialty foods, when wave after wave of imported foods came to our shores for the first time. Also, we food lovers were exposed to a new kind of cookbook back then that featured ‘authentic’ recipes from the cuisine of another country. These cookbooks were written by knowledgable writers who lived or had studied and trained in the country about which they wrote, and knew of what they said. Their emergence set the bar for required expertise in food writing since those days.
Restaurants, too, came alive during these years, offering us dishes that many of us had never tasted before, with ingredients that were new and exciting to our palates. Becoming a chef became a popular notion, and the era of the celebrity chef was upon us. Cooking school attendance swelled. Food surrounded us and as a nation we embraced it. The new breed of restaurant thrived and specialty foods that once resided in a sphere ‘above the norm’ slowly became ingrained into our lives all across the nation.
Who can remember, for example, that it was only in the early 1980′s that Italian sun-dried tomatoes and pesto first appeared on the shelves of specialty food shops in New York ? Indeed, Americans are savvier about food today than we were 30-40 years ago. Not always savvier regarding nutrition, or how to eat a balanced diet, or in steadfast concepts of eating fresh foods in season, or even where many of the foods in the grocery store comes from, but savvier in regards to being able to navigate our way through sophisticated restaurant menus and know the ingredients that the dishes are comprised of. Similarly, truffles, once rarified and only of importance to haute gourmands, are now familiar to all foodies thanks to affordable ingredients such as truffle butter, truffle salt and truffle oil.
Now awareness of foams and emulsions are sneaking into the vernacular, even among those who have not yet actually encountered them. We are no longer a ‘naive’ food nation and there is no going back.
The Fancy Food Show has been instrumental in making ‘special’ foods and ingredients accessible, and for introducing legions of specialty food retailers, chefs, cooking school teachers, private chefs, etc, to a wider palate of foods and ingredients than most of us grew up enjoying.
This year marks the 55th Anniversary of the Fancy Food Show. Those of us who attended the show before it permanently moved to the Jacobs Javit Center can remember a much smaller show with far fewer items and vendors. French food was the only major foreign influence, and German marzipan was cutting edge in confectionery circles. The show as held in the old Coliseum building ( now the site of the upscale Times Warner Center ) and in several hotel locations near Columbus Circle. And attendance was light.
Each year the Fancy Food Show grows larger, thanks in part to an increasing presence by foreign vendors who bring their products here for the first time, and American companies who are trying to find a toehold in the fickle American marketplace. Every show still manages to feature new cheeses, meats, ethnic ingredients, spices and condiments that are new. Retailers like ourselves try and determine which products are right for our shops and which ones will have the most mouth-appeal to our customers. The tables have been turned over time, and the once fearsome French food producers have been eclipsed by the domination of the suave Italian importers and exporters.
This year, one of my favorite new products was roasted, de-boned, salted and spiced, hormone-free, small Kentucky pigs ( with head attached ) that I sampled from Porchetta Primata, Birmingham, AL. These artisan porchettas are for sale to any deli, restaurant, take-out food shop, etc, that wants in on the ‘pork’ craze that is sweeping our country. Porchetta is well known to those who have traveled through Tuscany in northern Italy. Many good farmers markets usually feature a skilled counterman who slices thin slabs of hot, juicy ’porchetta’ right off the beast as everyone around hungrily watches. No other sandwich is as good as a freshly-made, hot and juicy porchetta sandwich, and no other food at the farmers markets draws such a crowd !
This year we did not notice any clear trends, but there appeared to be an abundance of snack foods, bottled beverages of all stripes and bake-off cake, cookie and bread mixes, and ready-made sauces. And, the show would not be the show without the handfull of goods that we find useless and un-appealing, over- packaged and over -priced and generally unnecessary.
Bob’s seminar on Fundamentals of Specialty Food Retailing went we,, as did our jointly-presented tea seminar. We delivered a hearty quantity of background information about the six classes of teas ( including slides from our trips to Japan and China ) and then tasted seven teas with the group. Everyone left well watered, on time , and with all questions answered.