Let's start off with my report from the International Sweets and Snacks expo; remember, I attended this sugary show in Chicago, hoping to uncover some new magical unicorn answer to my snacking needs?
Unfortunately, and as I well suspected, not much turned up. I was on my quest for the Perfect Snack. Something other than a hardboiled egg and a handful of almonds, which is what I'd usually eat but can't always just pull out of my bag. Well, maybe the almonds, but not the egg... I was looking for something to replace that level of real, unprocessed, quality food, when I can't have just that: real, unprocessed, quality food.
So what did I see at the show? Candy. So much candy, and the same old snacks, and a lotta nuts. Okay, I should have known, (and kinda did know, really) what I was heading into, I mean this was an expo that for years had been called the Candy and Confectionary show, they just added in the snack name more recently. And there were some snacks, a whole lotta chip variations, a handful of popcorn and jerky brands, and SO many nuts. I love nuts, nuts are great. But I was hoping for more than nuts. The unicorn, remember?
There were a few quinoa-based snacks too, and some bean-based chips that I like, but really, it was all about the candy. The massive, corporate, Big American Candy industry. The mega-corporate presence was insane. There were certainly smaller, and more artisanal producers on display, but Big Candy ruled the show. And the freebies and samples, mein gott. People were just loading up their complementary sample bag, taking it back to the coat check area, dumping their booty out into wheelie suitcases, and going back for more free stuff. I mean, if I actually ATE candy in any amount, I could have had at least a six-month supply of free, full-sized candy bars, gum and mints, just from what was being given out in the press area alone, never mind on the expo floor.
It was like professional trick-or-treating, as paid work, for adults. Adults who took their jobs very seriously, and maybe were being paid by the pound?
And bars, so many bars. There were a whole bunch of variations on the nut/dried fruit/sticky sweetener bar category. I like those kinds of bars, if I'm hiking for three hours up a steep mountain, but they're still too sweet and sugary for me. Savory, people, that's what I'm looking for, savory, not sweet! There were also bars made from meat, like bison and turkey, not sweet. I'd tried their lamb bar once, and while lamb is my favorite meat, I believe I previously called that bar a dog treat for a dog you hate? Okay, I retract that statement, because I tried their other flavors and they're good. Meat bars are something I can get behind, in the same way that the multiple variations on jerky I tried are too. But they still don't solve the problem of the perfect snack. I don't necessarily want meat in my perfect snack. I'm no paleo CrossFit junkie, although I do work out pretty hard. And while I totally support the production and eating of good, sustainably raised, grass-fed meat, we're still eating too much of it. Think those statistics about almonds and water usage are scary? How about cattle production and water use? Check out those numbers.
No. the perfect snack isn't a variation on the fruit and nut bar, bound with rice syrup in a sticky wrapper. It's not dehydrated bison and cranberries in a human pet snack form. If I could invent it, it would be made from a different protein, like a chewy form of firm goat yogurt. Goat please, not cow. They have a much smaller carbon footprint. It would be a layer of that, think like a dense, yogurty marshmallow, with a thick layer of spinach jerky and maybe a layer of chia seeds and yes, some kind of nuts too. I love nuts, I just don't want an entire bar based on nuts. Maybe a thin layer of dried apricot puree too, but not sweetened, just as is. Oh and wrap the whole thing in a sheet of crispy nori, and sprinkle it with sesame seeds please. That's it. That's all I'm asking for, it's not that unrealistic, is it? I'm sure some snack food industry R&D chef-engineer in a lab somewhere in New Jersey can tinker with yogurt enough to make me the yogurt marshmallow I want. If you know anyone, get them to call me. I'll be here, in the Foodiness fallout shelter, waiting for them.
I'm still working my way through my bag of swag from the snack show. I'm happy to report though, that I took almost NO candy at all. It was kind of an amazing exercise in self-control, like an alcoholic being forced to board a plane through the duty-free booze display. A few pieces of the really good chocolate from the really good chocolate companies who were cowering far back behind Big Candy, a bunch of different jerky products, some bags of nut mixes, and some tasty pumpkin-spice-spiced pumpkin seeds.
Overall, I think that the name, Sweets and Snacks show, is a little misleading. It was like 80 percent candy, and 20 percent snacks, 15 percent of that being nuts. Next month is the Fancy Food Show, here in NYC, and I've got a press pass to that one, too. That show is all about food, and FANCY food at that, obvs, so maybe I'll continue the snack quest there, see what I turn up. Hunks of prosciutto on a stick, goat cheese snack bites? We'll see. I may need an extra trick-or-treat bag for this one...
A few days after my return from Chicago, an email pops up in my inbox with the exhortation to: "Get ready for real food ingredients!" "Well," I thought, "lay it on me, I'm ready for real food ingredients, especially after the sugar shit-storm I'd just immersed myself in!"
This email was from one of the many food companies and ingredient suppliers and industry email lists that I've wound up on over the years, since when you register for a trade show, you suddenly start getting emails from all kinds of industry suppliers and companies. This email was from a company that makes chicken products. Not like nuggets and patties, or chicken jerky or even frozen parts, no.
The real food ingredient they were promoting is Chicken Protein Powder. Get ready indeed! Dehydrated, powdered, chicken meat dust. For use as an additive to processed food products, to increase the protein level in them, because everybody has gone insane about getting enough protein, even though most Americans get more than double the protein they need on a average day. But the food industry has latched on to our belief that we need hundreds of grams of protein, and has added it to all sorts of enhanced Foodiness products like cereals and drinks, and even bottled water.
Is chicken powder a real food ingredient? Chicken is real food; if you dry it into chicken jerky I guess it's still real food, but is chicken powder dust real food? I don't know. Something is not right, there's a distasteful quality about it. It's creepy. Too far removed from the actual animal. Too disregarding of the fact that the chicken was a living, breathing, feathered bird, before it was dehydrated and powdered and put into a vacuum sealed pouch. Too much like Soylent Green. It's chicken!!
Am I overreacting to this? Or do I just need to let go... and let dust?
I don't know. This one has me thinking. I'm already ready for real food ingredients, they don't need to tell me to be, I so am. But in my mind, and call me crazy, real food ingredients have recognizable shapes, forms, smells, and flavors. A drum of dust, from whence once came chicken? Not sure. But suddenly, dust is everywhere, or more specifically, not dust, but powders. Powdered foods, food dusts are floating in, like dust in the wind, but not like the sappy song by Kansas that I'd listen to in seventh grade when I was feeling existential, no, more scary than that.
The company recommends it as an additive to drinks, like chicken-powder smoothies, or to meatloaf-y things, as a binder and protein booster. I suppose, if I ate at Alinea, in Chicago, or the now defunct WD50 here in New York, and something was served to me with the addition of, or that highlighted their chicken powder, I'd be expected to ooh and aah and say how genius it was and how cutting edge and modernist it all was, right? But at least in those restaurants, I'd know that they'd dehydrated and powdered the chicken there (I'm assuming) and serving it in all good faith to me as that. Chicken powder. Not as an additive to bump up the protein in some other preparation of poor quality products to enhance the numbers on the label.
I don't know... wasn't it Joni Mitchell who said we are all just stardust? Made from molecules from the big bang? And to stardust we return, eventually, right? So if we're just dust, and chicken dust is just dust made from the same molecules as us, then is it ok for us to eat dust?
Even chicken dust?
Not all dust is bad, spices are dusts, chili powders, sugar, salt, in the '90s we restaurant chefs used spinach and beet dust to color pastas. It's just dehydration, which humans have used to preserve their food forever. Since the first wild berry dried up on a vine or the first fish flopped itself onto shore and got stuck there on a hot beach. All you're doing is removing water from food, making it eternally edible. If I made chicken jerky, and then ground it up to dust, is it still food?
I guess my problem is in the "enhancement" realm, adding it to poor quality or lesser quality food, to pump it up. It seems deceptive, which is exactly what Foodiness is all about. The deception. The masquerade, the swap-out or the fake out. Chicken is barely even thought of as an animal anymore, so how far are we from rebranding it as something else, and putting the dust on products that then won't require it to be labeled as containing chicken dust? It'll get some new name, something like "chx-powder," or "hi-pro-dust." Same way that the industry just renamed HFCS, to just fructose, hoping that big, dumb, soda-guzzling Americans won't notice or maybe just wont care? "Hey Bubba, it has fructose in it, that's from fruit, right? Great! It's real good for us, this blue doozle-berry flavored 80-ounce slushee." That's America, just rename, rebrand, re-spin, and hope no one notices.
Maybe we really are all just dust in the wind, you know, ashes to ashes... and all that? Waiting to simply return to star grit? I dunno, maybe we are. But I don't want to be breathing in powdered chicken in the meantime, if that's the case.