Southwest cuisine, salsa still hot in fancy food department

March 10, 1993|By Jill Wolfson | Jill Wolfson,Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN FRANCISCO -- Is there a new culinary trend lurking out there, ready to banish Southwest cuisine to the back of the cookbook shelves?

Is salsa still considered a fancy food even though it's as prevalent on American tables as mundane ketchup?

And what about my mother's string bean-mushroom soup-canned onion ring casserole? You know the one I mean. That sure used to be fancy. Why isn't it fancy anymore? And what is a fancy food anyway?

These were the burning questions as I walked into the Moscone Center and paid $20 to witness the hawking of 20,000 specialty food products from around the world.

Within minutes of entering the crowded world of the 18th Winter Fancy Food show, I was able to answer without hesitation:

1. No, Southwest hasn't run its course yet. Peppers were hanging everywhere, as were gift boxes of Southwest seasonings.

What's the matter with Arkansas? With free publicity in the White House, you'd think Arkansas firms would be out in force vying for culinary trendiness. Alone in the fight were Arkansas Blue Heron Farms with its blueberry-apple chutney and Grandaddy's Santos Cheese Inc. ("spreadable cheese with secret spices . . .")

2. Yes, on the salsa question. I witnessed thousands of chefs, gift shop owners, specialty store operators and food service buyers dipping their chips at dozens of booths, including the El ++ Paso Chile Company and Gil's Gourmet Gallery. A Mission Viejo company calls its tomato-pepper-garlic mix Cowboy Caviar and offers Marvelous Mushroom and Zesty Jalapeno flavors.

But there seemed to be no easy answer to my more cosmic question No. 3: What makes a fancy food a fancy food?

First, I postulated that it had something to do with price, then discovered that fancy can be as expensive as Italian-imported extra virgin olive oil or as reasonable as a peppercorn. It can be low fat (Splurge! The No-Guilt Chocolate Covered Pretzel) or can rack up a day's calories in a single helping (Belgian dark chocolates.) It can come in a can (Jake's Famous Clam Chowder) or in an environmentally conscious bag (teas from The Republic of Tea).

Fancy can be something old like couscous or something new like "Pavlova -- an Australian dessert base consisting of a sweet marshmallow-like center surrounded by a delicate, crunchy meringue crust.

So, if fancy isn't necessarily trendy, fattening or expensive, what distinguishes it from its run-of-the-mill counterpart? It doesn't even necessarily taste good. Reed's Original Ginger Brew is terrific; Flavor-Mate Irish Creme liquid coffee flavorer isn't.

I took my confusion over to restaurateur and food maven Joyce Goldstein, who was autographing discounted copies of her cookbook, "Back to Square One."

"What are we seeing here? New chutneys. New mustards. No, nothing really new," she said. "The truth is that there's nothing new under the sun, just variations of the old standards."

In other words, add a flavor. Take away a flavor. Make it bigger, smaller. Wrap it differently.

For instance, begin with some unfancy popcorn. Change the color and now you have fancy Black Jewel Popcorn that starts out dark, "pops snow white" and tastes like, well, unfancy popcorn. Plocky's Ultimate Popcorn uses a patent-pending process to add a barely perceptible extra crunch. Mary's Popcorn Truffles does the ultimate by burying the kernel in white chocolate.

It quickly became obvious that there are several standards vying for the Fancy Food Hall of Fame:

* Coffee: unflavored, flavored, decaf, regular, iced, even instant cappuccino mix.

Mustard: spicy, sweet, with or without salt, raspberry, chardonnay, garlic rosemary.

* Salsa: enough said.

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