Prewar Snack

As war drew near, consumption of junk food at the Snaxpo convention soared

The sun was shining, but the atmosphere was pure gloom in downtown San Francisco two Tuesdays ago, the day before the war on Iraq began. The word "war" was overheard in nearly every conversation as workers took their lunch breaks. In the bars around Moscone Center, footage of Saddam Hussein brandishing a sword played in seemingly endless loops, and the morning papers all featured the same picture of a frail, nervous-looking George Bush delivering his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam.

But inside the Marriott Hotel on Fourth Street, it was business-as-usual for the American snack food industry despite the prospect of international conflict. That Tuesday was the last day of Snaxpo -- the biggest convention of the year for companies that make greasy, crunchy things in small, colorful packages. This year's theme was "Bridging Our Snack Worlds," which tackled topics of global concern. Following a keynote speech by former ABC News shouter Sam Donaldson on the future of the snack industry, conferencegoers were treated to a talk on how bioterrorism might affect potato harvests, and a panel addressing the threat to junk food from the obesity epidemic.

By Tuesday afternoon, most attendees were taking a last lap around the convention floor, where the vendor booths were. In the oversize ballroom, everyone from potato chip equipment manufacturers to seasoning makers to zip-lock package guys plied his wares. Every vendor had a bowl of product to munch on. Like Tibetan monks reaching out to spin prayer wheels on their way through a monastery, the Snaxpo attendees dipped their hands into the bowls as they cruised the aisles, creating a rhythm that went: dip, crunch, dip, crunch, dip.

This wasn't just your plain-Jane potato chip offered up for viewing and tasting. It was cutting-edge chips and puffs coated with the latest innovations in zestiness -- Malaysian curry and smoky chipotle chile, for example.

"It looks like bacon," said Humberto Davalos, of Santa Catarina, Mexico, as he pointed to one of his company's "pellets" -- extruded, hard rectangles of corn and wheat that, when deep-fried, puff up into Chee-tos-like munchables striated with red-brown lines. "But," he added unnecessarily, "it isn't bacon."

It was Davalos' "12th or 13th" Snaxpo, and he said the looming war with Iraq had affected the show only in that "people want to go home now, before it starts, because they're worried about their flights."

Davalos' continued enthusiasm for snacks in the face of war was echoed at the booth featuring the Commercial Creamery Co., a producer of processed cheese flavoring whose tag line is "Customized Goodness."

"We do a lot of business in the Middle East," said Commercial sales rep Peter Gilmartin cheerily. "They don't have potatoes, so they don't really eat potato chips as much. They do more of an expanded corn business -- in other words, the pellets. But they love cheddar cheese. They like the orange cheese on their Chee-to-type things."

In Egypt, Gilmartin added, "dirt poor" people can treat themselves to a little processed-cheese-covered pellet snack for the equivalent of a "few pennies."

"It does have fat in it," he said. "But relative to their diet, that's probably a good thing."

However, a few attendees did admit to feeling just the slightest bit of anxiety creep into Snaxpo from the cruel world outside. Ken Reink, the rotund head of marketing for Japan-based Kabuki Krisps -- a shiny, crunchy snack that comes in flavors like crab, plum, and wasabi -- noticed a mood shift the previous day. When word hit the conference that President Bush would give an address that evening (his "Saddam get out in 48 hours or else" speech), Kabuki Krisps started flying out of Reink's booth. And he wasn't the only vendor with product zooming off the shelf: Snaxpo was seized by a sudden snacking frenzy.

"We definitely had some issues going on with eating yesterday," said Reink.

Snack food professionals aren't the only ones who get the munchies in times of national crises. Kim Feil, spokeswoman for Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based food research center, said the nation snacked more after 9/11.

"We definitely saw an increase in food that can be eaten in front of the television," said Feil. "People are going to be glued to CNN once the war starts, so they're stocking up now on quick, convenient food."

Bob Messenger, who edits a food trends newsletter called The Daily Cup, said that food is often "the medicine of choice" in times of high anxiety. "Look how many people gain weight when they get a divorce," he said.

As the afternoon progressed, war tensions continued to rise. The United Nations withdrew its weapons inspectors from Iraq, and journalists began to flee in droves. At Snaxpo, attendees started raiding each other's booths in anticipation of the conference's final hour.

The Bull & Hannah's meat snacks booth was jammed with people stuffing beef jerky into shopping bags and empty trail-mix containers.

"These nuggets are more tender," called out one of the sales reps to a woman making off with a year's worth of savory meat snacks.

Loath to have to haul samples back with them on the plane, vendors enthusiastically helped load people up with them. But curiously, the same vendors hungrily trolled other booths for leftovers. Two women inspected a wall of processed cheese spread, dropping jars at random into a cloth bag. A man working the California Raisin Advisory Board booth poured chocolate-covered raisins into any open container that came his way.

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