I've tried more pickles in the past two weeks than the average person will try in a lifetime. I've dispatched a small forest's worth of toothpicks, one sample at a time. I've discussed the relative merits of onion jam, cave-aged blue cheese, and single-origin coffee with a seriousness that I usually reserve for debates about which prestige film will win the most Oscars. It's food-awards season in San Francisco, and I've been making the rounds.
Awards and trade shows for food are more than just recognizing the hard work of the creators of interesting products. Just as the Academy Awards are to the film industry, these trade shows are also about the business of food. Vendors network with the media and with retailers, distributors, importer/exporters, and others involved with the hidden work of getting food from the place it's made to the place it's bought. Every year, thousands of new food products are unleashed on the world. Those novel flavors appear on your grocery store shelves not by magic, but through the synchronicity that occurs at events like these. Heinz Green EZ Squirt Ketchup was just a weirdly packaged condiment in a trade show booth, once upon a time.
The biggest culinary trade show in the country is the Fancy Food Show, a beast of a semi-annual conference held in San Francisco in January and New York in June. This, the 39th year of the Winter Fancy Food Show, was also its largest ever, featuring more than 80,000 products from 1,350 vendors and snaking through two massive halls and a ballroom of the Moscone Center. Imagine the crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass combined with the sensory overload of a Saturday morning at Ikea, and you'll have some idea of how it felt to be there.
Most people there were old pros and knew the ropes, were prepared for the madness, and applied some sort of method to it. I spent hours wandering aimlessly down the 50-plus aisles, passing booth after booth of new foods: beet and shallot gourmet wafer crackers, carrot-curry flavored tea, chocolate chip mini graham crackers, microwavable whole grain breakfast bowls, broccoli chips, stout-flavored taffy, strawberry tapioca pearls, "snacking chocolate," Downton Abbey-inspired tea, chocolate-espresso balsamic vinegar, "Cinnayum"-flavored peanut butter, soursop juice, beef jerky-studded chocolate, chia seed pudding, quinoa ravioli with kale and sweet potato, Guy Fieri's root beer-flavored barbecue sauce. "One of my favorite flavors right now is Sriracha," I heard a vendor tell a customer, and later had another vendor tell me. I passed a man sitting on a wooden bench, head in his hands, and I knew exactly how he felt.
After a while I started to see beyond the immediate chaos and make some sense out of what was happening. A lot of the vendors there — brands you've heard of, like Walker's Shortbread, Twinings Tea, Jelly Belly, Fage Yogurt, Ghirardelli Chocolate — are debuting new products, and hoping to get them into the hands of buyers and media. Because you can take in everything more or less at once, the Fancy Food Show is a good place to spot trends, like this year's proliferation of Sriracha-flavored products, veggie chips, drinking vinegars, and biodynamic foods. (The group behind the trade show, the Specialty Food Association, also has a team of trendwatchers who analyze all they've seen and broadcast it at the festival on the final day.)
Some booths have trophies that look like an Oscar if you squint. These are the "Sofis," prestigious prizes given out by the Specialty Food Association every year. Awards are given in categories like condiments, frozen savories, product lines, and snack foods, and the judging criteria extends to marketability and innovation as well as taste. A few booths have quite a lot of them. They draw the biggest crowds.
Other booths, like Sonoma's Bellweather Farms, which has won several Sofis for its cheese, also display red, white, and blue ribbons. These are bestowed by the Good Food Awards, a separate award-giving body that focuses on everything artisanal, and had coincidentally held its awards ceremony a few days before the Fancy Food Show. Farmers and food producers from around the country gathered in the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre to see 130 prizes awarded in categories like best pickles, best jam, best charcuterie, best beer, and best cheese. The awards are based on more than taste — items in each category are also ranked by the business practices of their creators: whether they use non-organic crops or GMOs, whether they strive to conserve water and other natural resources, whether their animals are treated humanely. Now in its fourth year, the Good Food Awards is emerging as the pre-eminent awards ceremony for small-batch artisans.
"Oh, you mean the twee awards," said a colleague, rolling his eyes, when I told him where I was going. And yes, there were a few moments during the ceremony when the earnestness got a little out of hand. The podium was made of orange crates, with oranges spilling out of the top. Culinary grand dames Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl sat stage left, dressed entirely in black, bestowing medallions on the winners like they were anointing them. Each category had multiple winners, so it all felt a little like a polite, everyone-gets-a-trophy affair. At the end, Sarah Weiner, co-founder and director of Seedlings.org, the organization that throws the Good Food Awards, gave a closing speech that compared the winners to the folk singers of the '60s, as a group of revolutionaries who inspired people to forgo society's expectations and forge their own, simpler way of living in the world.
But there was another narrative that night, one that ran deeper than the surface twee-ness of the whole event. It was touching to see these small-batch producers — some second- or third-generation farmers, some who had risked everything on a new career — get recognition for doing something that clearly meant a lot to them. An award like this can get them more distribution, better sales, a path to continue living a small-scale life in an increasingly industrialized world. The best speech of the night was given by Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese, who spoke movingly about the changing seasons and generations on his Wisconsin farm. "No matter how fast it feels like the rest of the world is going, you've still gotta wait for the snow to melt and the rain to come, for the asparagus to pop up, for the grass to grow and for the cheese to come ripe," he said. "...[H]ere's to living by the pace of a place."
I thought a lot about his slow-food philosophy as I sampled the goods made by these artisan producers at the Good Food Awards Marketplace following the awards ceremony: Here was a group of people who were choosing to live close to nature, as their grandparents had, and there's now a market to support the goods they make. Theirs was a different sort of success than the Fancy Food Show celebrated; a metric not measured by the flow of commerce but by how commerce is shaped by a way of life. And maybe this is a new kind of "fancy food" — not the definition created in the '50s by the Specialty Food Association, all exotic imports and international cuisines, but a focus on making the local and familiar new again. Who knows whether the artisanal Good Food Awards will stick around to become as robust and important as the Fancy Food Show, or if it will die on the vine. But that night, drinking mason jars of award-winning IPA with the medalists, I felt like the artisan food movement had already succeeded.