A Fancy Food Sunday In New York
NYC Hosts Three Unique Food Events
On a recent summer Sunday, our splendidly diverse city hosted three remarkably different food events. I was only able to attend two out of the three, but taken together, these events make a powerful comment about the state of food in New York.
The New Amsterdam Market
The New Amsterdam Market held its third outdoor market at the foot of Pier 17 on the Manhattan waterfront. With a slogan of "preserving New York City's public market legacy," New Amsterdam Market has a vision and an agenda: to establish a year-round, indoor New York City public market dedicated to regional, sustainable food. Specifically, they want to put a market into the Tin Building and the New Market Building, both of which are vacant publicly-owned buildings that were emptied in 2005 when the Fulton Fish Market moved to the Bronx.
The market organizers hold these one-day public events to get support, enthusiasm and visibility and it appears to be working. On this hot summer Sunday morning, tables and booths were set up under the El of the FDR Drive, adjacent to the South Street Seaport, showcasing over 100 producers to several thousand visitors. There was a Bread Pavilion with 8 splendid bread bakers. The others were clustered into Forage and Farm, Milk and Honey, Pastured Meats, Producers (including pickles, preserves, a brewery, "the people's popsicle"), Purveyors (chicken, meats, cheese, and wine), Distributors, Cooks and Caterers, 10 restaurant chefs, and a collection of what were called Advocates for Regional, Sustainable and Fair Food. This noble group offered free tastes, foods for sale, and enormous optimism that we can improve the quality and access to our food supply. It was a hot and humid Sunday but the crowds were big, spirited, confident and happily hungry.
The people behind New Amsterdam Market share the same passion as many in the New York food community and lucky for the rest of us that they do. My bet -- and hope -- is that the New Amsterdam Market will become a reality. If you visit their web site (see the link below) you can get more information, make a financial contribution, or sign up for their newsletter.
The Unfancy Food Show
That same day out in Williamsburg another group had organized the second annual Unfancy Food Show. I wasn't able to get to there but I appreciate their politics and their passion, which makes it possible to hold a community-driven event that insists that our food be better. I hope that next year they do it again, with even more vendors, more space and bigger crowds and I will do my best to get there.
But on this day I stayed in Manhattan, leaving the New Amsterdam Market to go uptown and tour the 54th Annual Summer Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center. As my bus traveled across 34th Street, it began to pick up people wearing ID tags around their necks, tags that would give them entrance to this huge trade show. Each tag had a category: retailer, exhibitor, distributor. I hadn't anticipated that my city bus ride would give me such a transition from the downtown artisanal to the mass-merchandising scene of 2,400 exhibitors showing and offering tastes of more than 180,000 packaged foods. By the time we reached 11th Avenue I felt like a conventioneer.
The Summer Fancy Food Show
It's very expensive to have a booth at the Fancy Food Show which means many small producers and entrepreneurs simply cannot participate. The show is also primarily for companies that can work with big distributors, again ruling out smaller companies. But that doesn't necessarily mean one is bad and the other is better.
I think there's room for it all -- fancy, unfancy, local, big, small. Do I favor local and artisanal products? Generally, yes. But there are also foods that I crave that can only be on my table in New York City because the global food machine is functioning. These include almonds from Spain (Marcona), salami from California (Fra'Mani), dry pasta from Le Marche (Latini), Stilton, the "king of cheese," from England (Neal's Yard Dairy), sweet chestnut puree from France (Clement Faugier), harissa from Morocco (Mustapha), honey from Tasmania (R. Stephens Mole Creek), and other items that come from around the world.
The Fancy Food Show was both fun and an insight into food trends that will soon come to our markets and kitchens. I'll spare you the details of the miles I walked over my five hours there (and how disgusting a gigantic convention center can look and smell after a day of thousands of people non-stop eating, dropping crumbs, spilling glasses). But here's some of what I ate:
- 1 small piece of chocolate puff pastry by Dufour (absolutely no flavor)
- A small smear of Humboldt Fog (a truly great California chevre)
- 1 small square of a fruit jelly made by someone I've forgotten (no flavor, only sweet)
- A single chocolate covered coffee bean (by Sant'Eustache and amazing)
- A piece of Brooklyn fudge (nice but not as good as mine)
- A slice of a Karl Ehmer chicken hot dog (perfectly spiced)
- A baked potato chip (tasteless)
- Cups of Gus's Dry Meyer Lemon soda and Extra Dry Ginger Ale (love)
- A small glass of Peartiser sparkling pear juice from California (refreshing and sweet)
- A piece of King of the Sea tuna (packaged in Brooklyn)
- Very lively Brooklyn-made hot sauce called Brooklyn Petro
- A large slice of prosciutto di Parma (perfection)
From these and my other tastings, plus hours spent reading as much as eating, here are some of the trends I see coming:
- Chocolate. Okay, it's not a trend but the news that dark chocolate has health benefits has clearly fueled this favorite food. You thought it was already big? Dark chocolate could probably have its own fancy food show and fill most of the Javits Center all on its own.
- Wasabi. It's being added to almost any product you can think of: chocolate, cheese, jam, rubs, marinades.
- Sweet and Hot and Sweet and Salty. Flavors are highlighted with sensory conflicts as in adding pepper to chutneys, chipotle to maple syrup, salt and chili to caramels, or pepper to cookies.
- The international table is getting bigger. I saw a large number of foods from the Middle East, including beautiful jars of vegetables and olives from Egypt and Morocco.
- Organic and Natural. It's no surprise that healthy ingredients are on the rise, but there is also a growing transparency about where the ingredients come from and in many cases, where the profits are going.
- Adult-flavored Soft Drinks. These are less sweet and in sophisticated flavors like Meyer Lemon or Extra Dry Ginger Ale. One made in Massachusetts by a New York Company, Gus' Grownup Soda, is particularly wonderful. It's available at Whole Foods, Grace's Marketplace, Fresh Direct, Garden of Eden, Fairway, Citarella and other NYC markets.
- Gluten-Free. More and more products that you'd associate with wheat flour are now being made without it. These include ice cream cones, crackers and candies.
- Junk Rules. Well, maybe not rules, but it's still a big player. Despite the growth in organic and natural foods, these producers know that there is still a huge appetite for fat, sweet and salt.
- Not a lot of gimmicks. Most of the foods were serious with few jokey names or goofy packaging. There were a handful that are on the election year bandwagon, such as McSteven's Obamaccino mocha drink, but for the most part, companies are emphasizing the opposite -- healthy, satisfying, even elegant. And they're doing so because that's what we (mostly) want to eat.
A happy footnote to the end of the Fancy Food Show. When the three-day show ended, City Harvest, the great New York organization that's dedicated to feeding our city's hungry, swooped into the Javits Center with dozens of corporate volunteers to do what they call a food "rescue." Instead of letting any of the leftover food samples go to waste, City Harvest worked through the night to pack up thousands of pounds of gourmet and specialty foods, bringing it all to community programs that feed our hungry neighbors. Now that's fancy food!