Eater Survives the Javits Center

Every summer, the NASFT (the National Association of the Specialty Food Trade) moves into the mini-municipality of the Javits Center and takes over. The Fancy Food Show is like the Mall of America for foodies, with five city blocks full of stalls, samples, hand outs and gimmicks. The entire point of the convention is for manufacturers, large and small, to get their product into the hands of retailers, restaurateurs and folks like us—the press. As you can imagine, with big-money deals being brokered, orders flying around, and checks being signed, the press is pretty low on the Trade Show totem pole.

Here are some of most striking things about the Fancy Food Show.

Badge Snobbery
In the past, we have attended the fancy food show as restaurateurs with the financial power to place orders; our visible-from-a mile, color-coded badge identified us thus. This meant that when we walked through the convention floor we were thronged by salesmen like the Beatles were by little girls, circa 1965. And while it made us feel important for about five minutes, it rapidly became tiring and even a little scary: it was like fielding a thousand in-the-flesh telemarketing calls.

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For the last few years of the convention, we attended as members of the press, which provides a huge contrast. Our colorless badge identified us as journalists, and we could feel the eyes of manufacturers scanning our bosom and finding no pleasure there. Their bored (and was I imagining it?) slightly resentful eyes would move on to the next bosom. After hours of this, it became strangely hurtful.

Dress of Many Nations
The American restaurateurs, retailers and members of the press that attend the Fancy Food Show dress for comfort. It’s July. There are miles of stalls. There’s a lot of standing around. Understandably, given the conditions, you see a lot of Crocs, Birkenstocks, belly bags and shorts. We’d characterize the look as summer-day-at-Six-Flags.

However, as soon as you enter, say, the large block of stalls reserved for Italian manufacturers, the slobbiness of American attendees becomes apparent. We saw a vineyard representative, standing all day to pour red wine samples (and shifting crates of used glasses) in Ur-trendy, 7-inch stacked wooden platform sandals, wearing a gleamingly immaculate white pants suit. We saw hundreds of Italian men, all perfectly coiffed, all wearing infinitely-tailored, narrow-cut dark suits with designer sunglasses and French cuff shirts, all talking simultaneously on eensy little cell phones. They all had espresso cups or wine glasses on their deal-cutting tables—even if they sold olive oil or cheese.

In the block of French stalls, there was a lot of hairdo. There was a lot of makeup. There was a good deal of very nice perfume. Let us re-iterate—it was July in New York, over 85 degrees and probably a thousand per cent humidity. You could wring the air and get a cup of hot, sooty water. We admired their steely determination to be fabulous.

Of course, things got a lot more relaxed on the organics floor. There were a lot of mellow, cheerful men in suspenders. Did we miss the belt boycott email?

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The Sad Truth about Samples
Many first time Fancy Food Show attendees hit the floor thinking, “Okay—I’m going to be sampling some of the Finest Fancy Food in the World. Since I’ll be eating so much, I’ll just skip breakfast.”

O, how mistaken this is.

In reality, the rule is: the cheapest (or worst) food is given most freely. So, while you’ll see a lot reps sautéing stuff in skillets—upon a closer inspection, the product is some bulk chicken niblet poised to retail at Sam’s Club. There are free die-sized cubes of cheese on toothpicks, there are free cubes of bread to dip into olive oil. You can sample vinegars, sea salts, organic gin—and all before breakfast. This does not a meal make.

The sad fact is, if you think the show will be a great gustatory experience, you’ll be crushed. The hot dog selling kiosk in the lobby should have an attached Brink’s truck it sold so much.

Of course, here were a couple of notable exceptions. In the Spain section, Fermin was freely sampling the newly available (in this country) Jamon Iberico de bellota. This is the breathtakingly expensive ham made from heritage breed pigs raised on acorns–it’s the crème de la crème of preserved pork. If prosciutto has a layer firm, white fat– the bellota fat is yellowish and so fragile that it’s practically a slightly emulsified oil. It literally melts in the mouth, leaving a flavor soulful, so transportative that we found ourselves dreaming of our last Spanish visit. Conversation stopped. The crowd disappeared. Until we were shocked back to reality by a co-conventioneer’s.shove.

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Laws are Routinely Broken
Convention rules state very clearly that Samples Must Not be Removed from the Convention Hall. Upon entry, one is provided with a see-through plastic bag—marked “For Literature Only”—and one has to pass through several checkpoints.

That said, as members of the press, we were given loads of packaged stuff to smuggle out of the Javits Center. We got buffalo meat Slim Jims made by Native Americans, we got a pint of vanilla extract, we got packages of brownies, chocolates, a canister of fennel pollen, various crack-containing (it seems) organic energy drinks. We were packing like a mule train.

Of course, we dutifully disposed of it all before leaving the Convention Center. We swear.

Gossip and News
The great thing about the Fancy Food Show is that we can catch up with some of our favorite Westchester businesses, all under one roof. There was elegant Angela Ingrao of Larchmont’s Cocoa calmly poised downstairs in the New York State block. We swapped gossip, and we warned her to get to the Jamon Iberico de bellota booth immediately (she did). It turns out that Cocoa is offering a newer, more simply packaged line of barks available at lower prices. So—if you don’t need the pretty Lucite box with the ribbon, and just want the fabulous chocolate barks, you might want to stop in or hit the website.

We were also glad to chat with our friends at Port Chester-based 5 Spoke Creamery. They have some breaking news to share, but our arms were twisted—we’ll have to wait to share their news until 5 Spoke is ready to announce. Look for these fabulous, Westchester-made raw milk cheeses at Gramercy Tavern, the Bedford Post Inn, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns—as well as at Bedford Gourmet.

Of course the Zens were there from Greyston Bakery. We’ve known these pleasant and virtuous folks since way back in the late ‘Eighties, when we bought their cakes for events that we catered. We’ve always loved their mission. Anyway, they were at the Fancy Food Show promoting their Do-Goodie packaged brownies, whose profits go toward local jobs, which readers might recognize as a mix in of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Now the brownies are available individually packaged nearly nationwide.

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