To Boldly Go: Global Food Marches Forward

The wildly international nature of America's culinary culture never ceases to amaze. In ten minutes at this week's Fancy Food Show I sampled Belgian chocolate, English cheddar and Hawaiian red sea salt.
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The wildly international nature of America's culinary culture never ceases to amaze me. I'd barely spent ten minutes wandering through the aisles at this week's Fancy Food Show before I'd sampled a Belgian chocolate, a tangy English cheddar, a cup of fragrant white tea -- made from the tips of leaves plucked from Sri Lankan bushes -- and a grain of Flavorbank's Hawaiian red alae sea salt. What next?

Well, next I gazed around the hangar-like spaces of New York's Javits Center -- hardly the most glamorous setting for a multicultural feast, with its industrial carpeting and unforgiving lighting. But it was packed. Thousands of buyers from restaurants, food stores, mail-order companies and supermarkets were wandering around -- many of them shoving small pieces of food into their mouths.

Here was a sort of United Nations of food, with Thailand on one side and Britain's cheery Union Flag on another. Not far away were Turkey, Mexico, and Spain. Even Serbia was out there somewhere, I read in the show's directory. "You've just passed Austria?" a man beside me yelled into his cellphone. "OK, we're on our way."

The layout would drive a cartographer crazy. Austria, it turned out, was right next to India, and it was an odd pairing. At the Indian Mango company stand, women in brilliantly colored orange saris handed out slices of juicy fruit. Next door, at the Austrian Trade Information booth, men in gray suits and steel-rimmed glasses sat on designer stools at immaculate white tables looking more like they were discussing pharmaceuticals than anything involving sensual pleasure.

The glue binding such disparate members of this global village is food. What's more, the show's delightfully retro title, "Fancy Food", demonstrates just how far America has come on its journey towards sensory inclusion. After all, much of what's on offer here is now mainstream, and hardly that fancy.

Here's how the world has crept into our diets. There are, of course, the imports. Booths were packed with everything from Scottish haggis to French escargots, Italian parmesan and Spanish olives. Nothing new there.

But what intrigues me is how even American produce is going global. On the mountain slopes of North Carolina, Doug Lambrecht is busy cultivating wasabia japonica to make the Japanese condiment sold by his company, Real Wasabi. Also in North Carolina, The Peanut Roaster counts jalapeño-flavored peanuts among its offerings.

Tastes from one part of the world are either melding with others or simply relocating. I tried some pasta with organic vegetarian soy Bolognese sauce (the soy replaces the meaty taste of the traditional version). Italy meets China, except that most soy now comes from Brazil. Soon after, I found a creamy marinated feta melting in my mouth. It came from Australia, not Greece.

At the British pavilion, Bombay Authentics' products reflect a culinary marriage that has existed since the time of the Raj. They've got spicy pickles and chutneys as well as a truly marvelous fusion creation: Bombay Bangers (sausages containing rather more spices than their British counterparts). Then, if you were to head back to the Indian pavilion, you'd find an Indian company selling "English" mustard.

And here they all are in America, being eagerly snapped up by U.S. buyers. As well as flavors, business cards are being exchanged; deals are being done. Up to 32,000 people show up during the two-day event, according to the organizers. So soon, much of what's on display will end up in supermarkets and department stores.

But hang on a minute. There's a tension emerging here. Aren't we all supposed to be going local? Forget mangoes and French cheese -- I thought idea was to shop at farmers' markets, cut carbon footprint, embrace seasonality and support local producers in the name of sustainability.

On the other hand, does sustainability always have to be local? Take the exquisite chocolate I found at the booth of Malagasy, which specializes in cocoa-rich treats from Madagascar. The company, says managing director Neil Kelsall, promotes "equitrade", helping its partners not only cultivate the beans but also make and package the chocolate, which means Madagascan producers retain more of the revenues.

Perhaps then, this show is closer to the United Nations than I'd at first perceived. After all, the UN promotes, among other things, "higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development." Surely the global cornucopia laid out at the Javits Center fits in with that lofty aspiration.

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