NEW YORK — Every one of the 180,000 items exhibited at the Fancy Food Show, the biggest specialty food-and-drink trade fair in North America, doubtless has a compelling back story involving cultural heritage, supportive friends and personal passion. But in the midst of the late June madness at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, it was easy to imagine producers squinting at the existing range of snack foods and asking, “How can we make that crisper? And maybe add coconut?”
The Fancy Food Show isn't all nibbles. Endless aisles are devoted to imported noodles, cheeses and oils, organized by country (this is where the contracts putting certain products on specialty store shelves and websites get signed.) U.S. artisans hawk their caffeinated chocolate bars, gluten-free salad dressings, hemp granolas, high-protein ice creams and an astounding number of popcorns. The South Carolina contingent alone presented cookies, cocktail mixers, crab dip, biscuits and cocktail sauce.
Yet for all the diversity, a few common themes emerged this year. In addition to crispy and coconutty, food producers have lately developed a fondness for the following categories, which may well dictate how and what you eat in the next few years. Or not. That's part of the fun.
(Note: Not all of the recommended products listed below are currently retailed in South Carolina. For more information, visit the company's website.)
- Ghost vindaloo sauce, Apinya Thai Food Co., apinya.co
Honey infused with chilies, Mike's Hot Honey, mikeshothoney.com
Flame-roasted jalapeno pimento cheese, Red Clay Gourmet, redclaygourmet.com
Sriracha with pickled garlic banana chips, Bananas Joe, bananasjoe.com
Adam and Apinya Ross' line of Thai-inspired sauces, bottled in futuristic capsule-shaped containers that are just starting to catch on with American producers, neatly balance flavor with heat. But it's a balancing act worthy of a Flying Wallenda. The degree of difficulty is heightened by the Ross' liberal use of Thai chilies, which Apinya Ross eats like carrots. The Rosses are committed to including Thai chiles in each of their seven sauces.
Adam Ross says they haven't encountered any backlash in their northern Virginia hometown, suggesting that the American tolerance for spice is creeping upward. Similarly, Mike Kurtz, founder of Mike's Hot Honey, says very few people have questioned the sting of his honey, inspired by a visit to a Brazilian pizzeria. He initially made the condiment while working at Brooklyn's Paulie Gee's.
“People would come up and ask for to-go containers,” he recalls. “The younger generation is a lot more open.”
Peanut butter pups, Gearhart's Fine Chocolates, gearhartschocolates.com
It's the charity to beat all charities: The money from the pups goes to Companions for Heroes, which “matches rescue pets as companion animals to our nation's wounded veterans.”
Once upon a time, eaters wanted to know how much fat was in their snacks. Now, producers report, they're curious about what kind of good they're accomplishing by eating cheese-flavored crackers and salted caramel pretzels.
A growing number of food producers are devoting proceeds from at least one item to a charitable cause: Seattle Popcorn Company, for instance, is selling Patriot Popcorn to support prescription drug benefits for veterans. “If even a fraction of companies give proceeds to something they believe in, it can do much good,” spokesman Jesse Greene says.
Living baby lettuce, Radicle Farm Company, radfarm.co
Harried shoppers love the idea of bagged salads, which save them the washing, chopping and storing steps associated with a whole head of lettuce. But they're understandably not as wild about the threat of contamination associated with packaged greens: In 2010, Consumer Reports discovered that levels of coliform bacteria in bags of greens were 39 percent higher than what's considered acceptable.
A number of companies exhibiting at the show are trying to give convenience-minded salad fans more control over the food supply by selling them still-growing herbs and greens. The concept's not too far removed from the horticulture kits sold in science museum gift shops, but it makes enormous sense in a kitchen setting. As John Mobley of Radicle — producer of the most attractive windowsill containers — puts it: “We buy salad on Monday because we want to eat healthy, and by Thursday, it's bad.”
Under the Radicle model, seeds are started at a farm within 30 miles of the store where it's sold. Whole Foods in Manhattan is charging $3.99 for the packet, which can be harvested for up to two weeks – and replanted when the leaves are all eaten.
“Your arugula is going to have the best bite you've ever had,” Mobley promises.
Ketchup, True Made Foods, truemadefoods.com
A century ago, ketchup didn't necessarily mean tomatoes. While the heyday of walnut ketchups and mushroom ketchups has surely passed, contemporary condiment makers are stepping back from their all-tomato approach to saucing, flavoring their tomato-dominant ketchups with spinach, carrots and squash.
As Abraham Kamarck of True Made Foods explained, when the company's founder got out of the army, he let his diet slide, so his wife started hiding nutritious vegetables in tomato sauce. The trick developed for picky kids apparently works as well on adults.
“This is a ketchup I don't feel bad about eating!,” Kamarck said with a convert's zeal.
In addition to calling on less-popular vegetables for flavoring, snack makers are also increasingly packaging their various vegetable chips and sticks together, since customers apparently appreciate the variety.