I ate my way through the Natural Products Expo East at the Baltimore Convention Center last week. I probably upped my normal fiber intake by 200 percent as I downed almost every sample that was handed to me while walking the floor.
I sipped lactose-free soy milk, spooned down soy yogurt, ate cheese made from raw milk, sampled sausages made from happy hogs, downed an organic hot dog, sampled an eggplant burger, chewed on a hemp bagel and a hemp-powered energy bar, spooned down five kinds of honey made by Mexican bees, enjoyed dark chocolate that didn't have cows' milk, tasted a sauce that looked like it was loaded with tomatoes but actually was made with carrots and beets, sipped organic wines from Maryland, tried a couple of sudsy organic brews from Anheuser-Busch, then tossed down a few Goji berries from Tibet.
Much to my surprise, downing this stuff did not remind me of swallowing medicine. My prior experience with many healthful foods has been that they tasted like punishment. You kept chewing because even though the flavors were repulsive, this stuff was good for you. Never once in my travels through the expo did I feel like I was in the doctor's office. Of course I didn't feel like I was dining at Pazo either. Hey, life is full of trade-offs.
There are, I am told, a variety of factors pushing the growth in natural and organic products. Many folks say that eating these foods is good for you, that it can clear up your innards, your skin and your mind. I did not care what these foodstuffs were doing to my inner being, my longevity or my complexion. I just wanted to enjoy what I was eating.
I spent a lot of time hanging out at a spot called the Decadence Bar. There I sampled cheese, chocolate and wine, at 11 in the morning. Sheana Davis, a cheese expert from Northern California, served me a piece of Heini's Raw Milk Cheddar from Millersburg, Ohio, and told me to compare the taste with a piece of pasteurized cheddar. The raw milk cheese had much more depth of flavor; more "moo," if you will, than the pasteurized cheese.
After cleansing my palate, organically, with a glass of Maryland's Boordy Vineyards Pinot Noir, I had a piece of Terra Nostra Organic Chocolate from Vancouver, British Columbia, made with rice milk. I am not sure what rice milk is, but I do know the dark chocolate was luscious.
I ate several items containing hemp. Hemp, I was told, was not the same plant as marijuana, although they might be distant cousins. Hemp is high in protein, fiber and omega 3, according to a flier handed out by the French Meadow Bakery and Cafe, the Minneapolis concern that was also handing out samples of Healthy Hemp bagels. The hemp bagel was chewy, and unlike the reported effect of eating brownies made with its distant cousin, this did not bring on an attack of the munchies.
Hemp was also an ingredient in the Vega Whole Food Energy Bar made by Brendan Brazier, a professional triathlete from British Columbia. (Hemp is easier to get in Canada.) Brazier said he started making these bars at home, mixing them in his blender. He used them as fuel to keep him going during 50-kilometer races. He is currently the Canadian 50K champ.
The bars also have dulse, which Brazier said is seaweed that keeps his calf muscles from cramping. The berry-flavored bar that I sampled almost tasted like a candy bar, and I walked all over the convention center without getting a single calf cramp. Must have been the dulse.
Many of the things I tasted were "free" of usual ingredients. The zesty red Nomato sauces made by Norine Boyd in Lancaster, Pa., were free of tomatoes. Boyd first made the mixtures, with beets and carrots, because her granddaughter, Hannah, was allergic to tomatoes. The "burger" made by Dominex in St. Augustine, Fla., that I tasted was free of meat, but used ground eggplant instead. It worked.
The Great Organic Uncured Hot Dog from Applegate Farms of Bridgewater, N.J., was made from cattle free of antibiotics. This organic dog worked best when slathered with plain old yellow mustard. The savory jalapeno and cheddar cheese smoked sausage served at the Hans' All Natural meat booth came from pork that was free of antibiotics but loaded with smoky flavor.
My visit to the Blue Ribbon Mexican Honey booth reminded me of a wine tasting. Samples of the five types of honey were served in a recommended order. Distinctions were drawn between multiple-flower varietals, such as Golden Reserve and Autumn Flower, and the single-flower varietals, such as the Vera Cruz Orange Blossom and Mesquite. There was a difference in taste. Apparently, where honeybees hang out matters; it is their terroir. The honey comes from Mexico; Bruce and Eric Bromberg, who operate Blue Ribbon restaurants in New York, distribute it.
On my way out of the convention center, I stopped at Natural Zing, the Mount Airy food distributor that I thought had the best name at the expo. That's where I had the Goji berries. They made me thirsty.
I walked across Pratt Street and had a beer at the Wharf Rat, where I noticed many of patrons were sporting badges identifying them as expo attendees. The beer, Harvest Ale, was made with wildflower honey from Oregon. I don't know if the honey in the beer was organic, but drinking it at the end of a day of healthy eating sure felt natural.
Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.