The Scorching of the American Palette

At the country's biggest fancy food show, the hottest items promise to kick yo' ass

Published May 25, 1996 11:28AM (EDT)


"A gourmet who counts calories," James Beard once said, "is like a whore who looks at her watch." Beard would have loved the 42nd Annual International Fancy Food & Confection show, which runs through Wednesday at the downtown Pennsylvania Convention Center here. No distracting clocks garnish the looming interior walls; people eat like there is no tomorrow.

Some 30,000 attendees, many of whom own retail gourmet shops, came to nibble their way through thousands of mostly pre-packaged specialty foods from around the world, and to decide what the rest of us will be eating for the next year or so. Ranging across four football-field sized auditoriums, it's the world's biggest, most cramped cocktail party, with guests inhaling bite-size, toothpick-skewered bits of everything from brownies and bratwurst to biscotti and smoked

Alice Waters would get the cooties here. This isn't a place for people who like their food wholesome, organic or strictly farm-fresh. Rather than ripe fruits, cheeses and vegetables, the Fancy Food Show is about tasty tidbits -- pates, jams, salsas -- that can be canned, bagged, boxed, pickled or shrink-wrapped, and sent whizzing across the country to be plunked in gift baskets or wedged under the arms of upscale snackers off to their weekend houses. In that sense, the show is a throwback to the pre-Chez Panisse world, when "gourmet,"
as Jane and Michael Stern put it in their book "American
Gourmet," meant the faux-glamorous consumption of "crème brulée in the dining room of nearly any Holiday Inn (and) duck à l'orange on an airplane flight from Omaha to Oklahoma City."

American tastes have grown subtler since then -- arugula and portobello mushrooms are sold at Mom & Pop stores. So, one wonders how much of a market there is for Nabisco's new pre-packaged "Easy Omelettes," announced triumphantly in last week's issue of Supermarket News. Indeed, '90s-style health concerns were on merchandisers' minds here: The terms "low fat," "organic," and "low salt" seemed to be tattooed onto everything. But they were submerged beneath the belly-to-belly clamoring for new, unusual tastes -- some of a slightly scary nature, others that the world perhaps does not really need.

Salmon jerky, for instance. And "instant" latte mixes, ginger juice ("an important addition to every pantry"), frosted dog bones, "Dead Red," a non-alcoholic wine licensed by surviving members of the Grateful Dead, "private reserve" Vermont maple syrup that comes in "elegant" fluted wine bottles (for the sissified lumberjack in your life), frosted key lime graham crackers. And watch out for "sprates," which are billed as a cross between pates and spreads.

Scanning (and tasting) all these unlikely foodstuffs can make you feel more than a little bit chubby, white, Western and decadent. It brought to mind a piece that a wide-eyed Martin Amis filed for London's Daily Telegraph (it's in his 1986 collection, "The Moronic Inferno") from a Ronald Reagan campaign stop in El Paso in 1979: "I strolled among the Skips and Dexters, the Lavernes and Francines, admiring all the bulging Wranglers and stretched stretch-slacks," Amis wrote. "This felt like Reagan Country all right, where everything is big and fat and fine. This is where you feel slightly homosexual and left-wing if you don't weigh twenty-five

Cinching my own bulging Wranglers, I went looking for some politically correct fare. A slew of "rainforest" goodies promised
to help save trees. A flier announced "Croatian Confections," from a Boston-based import company whose motto is: "Rebuilding Bosnia and Croatia one 'sweet' at a time." (A portion of their profits go to relief organizations.) The Peace Works, Inc., an organization dedicated to bringing the warring factions in the Middle East together culinarily, promoted "Moshe and Ali's World-Famous Gourmet Foods," which are "100 percent natural, certified kosher/halal, and additive/preservative free." Among
their products: "fat-free Luscious Ginger Sprate," which, like their other products, might in some small way "melt the hatred."

One didn't have to be Faith Popcorn to pluck out the major trend at this year's Fancy Food Show. We've officially entered the era -- as one brand of beef jerky labeled it -- of "Kick Yo' Ass Hot"
food. There were salsas and hot sauces with names like "Devil's Brew Garlic Hot Sauce," Dave's Gourmet "Hurtin' Habanero Sauce" and Cape Fear Hot Sauce ("Near Death Rating"). More notable, though, were the plethora of new, scorch-your-mouth items that stray from the more traditional categories. How about some Jalapeno Chocolate Snacks for the kiddies? Or Habanero Pecan Brittle? And should you want to keep the family at a distance this Thanksgiving, tell them you've ordered up an entire "Jalapeno Smoked Texas Turkey."

Like many of the attendees, I spent a lot of time mopping my brow and gasping for water. I also made repeat trips to a gourmet slurpee stand where I was given to think what all this hot-mania meant. A headline -- "The Coarsening of the American Palette" -- swam into my fevered consciousness. We've got no taste anymore anyway, I thought, why not just fry off whatever few jaded flavor-detectors we have left?

Morosely, I walked over and talked to Ted Adams, whose Lubbock,
Texas-based Windmill Candy offers that Habanero Pecan Brittle as well as Chili Pepper Chewies. He had a more pragmatic explanation. "Hell, everything's bad for you these days," Adams barked, while looking over my shoulder for potential retail buyers. "Chili's are catching on because they're exciting to eat and they don't have any calories -- they're good for you."

What will he do if the trend peaks too soon? "Well, I've got a
shipment going over to England soon," he said. "They like everything
Western over there -- country music stars, you name it. I figure I can always just sell this stuff overseas."

Quote of the day

One big happy family

"What are you -- working for the press now? I know they put you up to it. Yeah. Right. We're going to work it all out and the press is going to be very disappointed because they won't be able to come to the convention and beat us up, so, otherwise we're in good shape."

-- Bob Dole, answering a question about his stand on abortion from a customer at the Stage Delicatessen in New York, where the GOP presidential candidate was campaigning.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

MORE FROM Dwight Garner

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