Experiences from the Winter Fancy Food Show

By first year Gastronomy student Kaitlin Lee

Last week I attended the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. This Disneyland of food is orchestrated by the Specialty Food Association, the trade association for specialty foods in the United States. The Fancy Food Show brings together thousands of producers and thousands of products for buyers from local co-ops and Wal Mart alike. Trends are solidified. Deals are made. And so, so many samples are handed out.

I spent most of the show at a booth that makes handmade kimchi in Brooklyn, Mama O’s. Many morning visitors demurred trying the fermented condiment. My boothmate, a show veteran who’s attended regularly for the past ten years, thought this was a smart move. Endless samples can lead to hedonistic behavior, and she’s seen people vomiting in the bathroom, the result of overindulging or mixing foods like jamón ibérico, goat kefir, and barrel-aged sauerkraut in quick succession.

I successfully avoided the fate of past sensitive-stomached attendees, but by the third and final day, I walked around the floor in a daze. A bite of Roquefort at one booth, a spoon of chocolate mousse across the aisle. The SFA’s mission statement is to “shape the future of food,” and to taste the future, I had to try everything.

Photo courtesy of specialtyfood.com

“Plant-based” foods, which are framed as environment and technology friendly, were the breakout category at the show. I tried many a non-dairy cheese, from a mozzarella equivalent to an uncanny cashew brie.  With a mottled-rind exterior and creamy, faintly nutty paste, it was the Westworld host of vegan cheese. But big hype doesn’t always equate to big flavor. Plant-based butter mimicked the mouthfeel and look of the dairy derived-original, but it lacked the sweetness and satiating fullness of traditional butter. Plant-based shrimp perfectly looked the part. It had a sweet/umami flavor profile I associate with shrimp, but the thick breading emphasized the slightly spongy texture of the pea-based protein base.

The literal and metaphorical feeding frenzy is fascinating from a food studies perspective. Debates over the ethics of production, consumer desire for transparency and healthier foods, even issues of cultural appropriation and who can commodify flavors and ingredients are embedded into the most casual interactions at Fancy Food. Most of the gatekeepers and retail buyers, are white, and the majority are male, which trickles down to what consumers find at their local grocery store. I wonder what the French trade reps and proponents of legacy foods think of plant-based brie. The future of food is clearly looking forwards and backwards, and it’s anyone’s guess where it will end up.

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