Gluttons for Punishment?

At the 23rd Winter Fancy Food Show in Moscone Center two weekends ago, from a booth of exotica called Victoria's Pleasures, a young East Indian hawked the wares, chanting "Hot, hot, hot!" with the frantic aggression of a Calcutta street peddler. The more desperate he sounded, the more swiftly the passers-by passed him by. Foolish enough to pause and watch, I found myself dragged (metaphorically) by the hair to the display table, where the young man nigh forced into my mouth a tortilla chip all adrip with an ominous-looking red-brown colloid.

Well, as Leadbelly almost sang, "When your mouth catches fire and there ain't no water round ...." My eyesight dimmed, my heart raced, and I blindly stumbled around the corner to a booth sponsored by the city of Berkeley, where a bite of local cheesecake revived me from the OD of Hot Hot Hot sauce.

"He's gonna kill somebody that way," I croaked. Evidently the young hawker didn't catch the distinction between hot salsas (for dipping) and hot sauces (for cooking); his company's product, of a "just one drop and all your troubles stop" potency, was not designed to solo. But it was by no means the worst thing I put in my mouth during the three days of the Winter Fancy Food Show.

At this humongous annual trade show, the vast cavern of the Moscone Center basement is crammed with about 3,500 exhibitors, each hoping to elicit the business of the proprietors of gourmet shops and gift shops, the buyers from uppity groceries like Andronico's, and the representatives from national and regional distributors -- the bulk of the show's "audience." Some of the small-brand establishments turn out to be conglomerates in disguise: For instance, the Hormel booth revealed to me that the giant meat canner has colonized a hunk of the culinary Third World, including the House of Tsang, Dona Maria, Herdez, Bufalo, Pelopponese, and Patak product lines. Other exhibitors are whole countries (Italy, Spain, Ireland, Texas, Berkeley, etc.) touting their own horns of plenty. And a great many are smaller, newer enterprises hoping that their bright little ideas or exquisite, nearly homemade products will become national food fads.

If nothing else, the show previews which foodstuffs are most likely to be shoved down the collective gourmet throat in the next few years. The crux of today's fancy-food industry is that as Americans have developed more sophisticated palates, we've simultaneously lost the free time to cook flavorful food. We now buy the flavors separately, and apply them externally to fast-cooking dishes. The ready-made salsas, sauces, mustards, and marinades that have dominated the shows for the past decade are Prozac for the nation's tables, making every meal a Happy Meal.

Some products were incredible, others inedible. I thought the worst might be the wheat-free gluten-free biscotti, evidently made from fine-milled free-range sawdust, or perhaps the pretzel bits robed in cheap white chocolate -- but that was before we sampled the ultimate winner of our Worst of Show award, Mrs. Malibu's 92 percent fat-free berry-flavored peanut butter, which has the added feature of gluing your mouth nearly shut so you're forced to actually swallow it.

As usual, there were 80 zillion mustards; this time there were an additional 95 zillion hot salsas and hot sauces and hot everything-and-anything, with brand names like Ass-Kickin' and Ring of Fire. Some of the tastiest salsas you'll probably find locally were Frontera's Tangy Arbol (from chef/author Rick Bayliss) and Khatsa's "Tibetan" nettle salsa. (Khatsa also makes a nice "Tibetan" barbecue sauce; another interesting one was Silver Baron Raspberry-Sage Barbecue Sauce, with a delicate sweet-herbal flavor just right for Memphis-style pork "Q" or for grilled salmon -- and part of the current raspberry rush, or maybe rash.)

A special case of the hots: Habanero (or Scotch Bonnet) chiles are among the hottest peppers in the world. When grown in the Caribbean, in Jamaica and Trinidad, they're also mellow and complex, with hints of mustard and papaya. One excellent use was in World Harbors Blue Mountain Jamaican Style Jerk Sauce and Marinade, with authentic flavor, and a light enough texture to use straight from the bottle, and hence more convenient to use than Walker's Wood, which needs dilution with oil.

Unexpectedly, Captain Rodney's Scotch Bonnet Pepper Jelly (from Bell Buckle, Tenn.) was delightful, carrying the peppers' flavors minus their heat. A fair bearded man of about 40 with the look of a gentle pirate, Rodney fell in love with Jamaica on many trips there. He said he had no success when he tried to grow Scotch Bonnets in Tennessee from Jamaican seed; "They had no taste, they were just hot," he said. Now he imports them raw from Jamaica, and jams 'em on the day they get there. Rodney's was among several hundred savory-sweet examples of what are called "hors d'oeuvres jellies" (to be served over cream cheese on crackers or minibagels), clearly an upcoming trend in food-fad land. Some others I liked were Carol Hall's Pepper Jellies (from Fort Bragg), especially the ollalla berry with cabernet and the mango with orange, both luscious and sophisticated (locally available at Draeger's). Also exciting were Blithell Farms' frozen jams -- frozen because they're uncooked, to retain their pristine fruit flavor.

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