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This year, for the first time since 1994, the 33rd annual winter Fancy Food Show came to San Diego, occupying the belly of the Convention Center for four days. Normally, the show is held in San Francisco, but this year there was a scheduling conflict at Moscone Center, so we got it — over the passionate protests of the many exhibitors who’d rather go to Frisco. What’s the Fancy Food Show? It’s the Godzilla and King Kong of the food trade rolled into one mighty megillah. Staged by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, its purpose is to let companies that create and/or produce culinary specialties (or gourmet goodies, if you prefer) display and try to sell them to wholesalers and retailers who’ll eventually sell them to us eaters. And yes, they let ink-stained wretches in, too, to report on it. In short, it’s the edible version of Macworld, but instead of hordes of young geeks, it draws hordes of sweet old dears who run little gourmet food shoppes in places where the only possible source of a decent olive oil or imported cheese is — the little gourmet food shoppe.

To get in, you have to be in the food trade, or the media, or know somebody in the food trade who’s willing to take you or to lie that you work for him or her. (I don’t think they’re totally strict about credentials — I saw a few little kids with their parents. Sons of the nephew of the uncle in the food trade?) Anyone who attends gets to wander endlessly through the aisles of the Convention Center, never seeing daylight, tasting lots of sample goodies, and eventually turning green around the gills, since almost all the food is “special” by virtue of being intensely sweet, salty, or spicy. (There are few vegetable samples, and very few meat samples, and the caviar vendors give no samples at all.) There are no resting points for the palate, except at the occasional water stations and the bottled mineral-water exhibits.

Fortunately, there are occasional resting points for the body, in the form of double-sided miniature park benches that seat two per side, stationed in the transverse center aisle. As the afternoon latens and thousands of tootsies simultaneously tire, friendly competition for seating can grow intense, occasionally leading to accidental backward-lap-dances as two or more unheavenly bodies attempt to violate the laws of physics by claiming the same space at the same time.

For reasons never explained, you’re not allowed to take any samples out of the hall — they even have security guards at the exits, instructed to search your purse or clothing if you fit the profile of a desperado sample-smuggler. Nowadays, I guess that would be somebody wearing a turban (filled with chocolates?), a burka (“Are you hiding melons under there?”), or a backpack. Of course, wise guys like me can always find ways to sneak a little stuff past the doorway guardians. (Not “Deep Throat” but “Deep Pockets.”) Besides, the staff here seemed more laid-back than the ones up north. (The latter have probably moved on to more serious national security occupations by now, e.g., doing their bit at SFO to keep terrorist toenail clippers off your flight to Podunk International.) But the stern sanction against smuggling goodies goes kablooey during the final hours of the last day of the show anyway, when exhibitors will do anything to ditch their leftovers rather than ship or schlep them all home again. Unfortunately, I missed that day, still soaking my feet from the previous day’s foray.

The last time I went to the show was about ten years ago, covering it for a free weekly in San Francisco, trying to pick up on the candidates for the latest and hottest trends. The food shows of the ’90s took place in an era of food fads rapidly dancing do-si-dos, and the show seemed a Parliament of Dunces, desperate attempts to capture attention for the latest and greatest dumb ideas. There were a lot of truly horrible foods. The chocolate-covered popcorn nightmare, for one, along with its cousin, wasabi popcorn. The evil marinades to wreck any meat. Hot sauce after hot sauce — back then, that was the year’s major fad, bringing many new products named as painful-anal jokes (e.g., “Ass Kicking” and “Ring of Fire” brands). There was no “natural/organic” section, as the current food show featured. Instead, there were “health foods” — breads and crackers and pastries evidently made from low-carb, fat-free, gluten-free, flavor-free tree bark. These were truly magical foods: one small bite would react instantly with human saliva to expand into a mouthful of damp sawdust. (But there were some goodies, too — Aidells sausages, Thai Kitchen curry pastes, the “O” line of citrus-infused olive oils, Walkerswood jerk marinade, L’Estornell’s rich Spanish olive oil — products that are still staples of my pantry.)

In those days, I’d write up the show as a humor piece. But this time, I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him in satire. (Well, maybe a little. Need some tartness to go with the sweet.) I was shocked (and pleased) at the leap in quality. This year, the prized central aisles of the Convention Center, where you’re most likely to enter the hall, were occupied by a huge grouping under the banner “Natural/Organic.” That’s where I concentrated my travels — partly by personal preference, and partly because natural/organic foods dominated another category of the directory: “What’s New and What’s Hot.” Yes, there were a few little nasties under this rubric — some ineffably bland frozen “cocktail samosas” from India, and a vegan cheesecake that tasted like what it was — tofu swamped with vanilla. But mostly, these aisles yielded pleasures.

About a third of the organics consisted of sweets of one form or another, and riding high above them all was the hottest new ingredient: Acai (pronounced “a sigh”), extracted from purple berries from a palm that grows in the Brazilian Amazon, is reputedly anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, and antimutagenic, not to mention an energy-boosting cure-all — a new miracle food/drug in a bright-tasting sweet-tart package. (I mean, by now pomegranate is so 1999!) There were juices, purées, smoothies, sorbets, and gelati made with it, and they all tasted good, and sometimes splendid. (They were the closest foods at the show to providing mouth-relief after bites of exotic chips and stinging salsas.) One of my favorite uses was from Dagoba, a famous and fine purveyor of organic chocolate, which offers a dark-chocolate bar called Superfruit, filled with acai partnered with goji berries, another upcoming miracle food. Goji berries (aka wolfberries, widely used in Chinese medicine) look to become the acai of 2012, after North Americans have gobbled up and extincted all the acai in Brazil in hopes of obtaining eternal life and youth. Where to get acai products locally? Right now, Whole Foods has the widest variety — several company reps mentioned it as a local source for their products — but at least one large acai wholesaler has products (such as juice) at local Vons, Albertsons, and Ralphs.

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