The next time you select a jar of mustard off a store shelf -- or a bottle of salad dressing or a package of brilliantly colored pasta, or a packet of chili spices -- think for just a moment about where it came from.
Behind every one of these so-called "specialty foods" is an entrepreneur, ebullient or anxious, suave or laid-back, all alone or backed by a mighty giant of the food industry. And it's a pretty safe bet the buyer from your store and the entrepreneur met at a Fancy Food Show, presented twice a year by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
The 38th annual International Fancy Food and Confection Show, which began this past Sunday and ends today in Washington, featured more than 1,000 exhibitors and about 21,000 products. It's more than an exhibit: It's a four-day whirl of parties and social events, seminars and cookbook signings. There were food celebrities everywhere -- Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme, and D.C. chefs Will Greenwood and Mark Miller. And, of course, it's four days of tramping the seemingly endless aisles in a half-dozen exhibit locations, four days of smiling brightly and reciting a sales pitch and -- everyone hopes -- four days of bargaining and ordering.
Until you see it, it's hard to imagine the stunning variety of items presented: coffee and chocolate, cheese and chili spice, pastry and pasta, cider and "sport" tea, olive oil and baby white eggplant, chutney and couscous, pretzels and crackers, ham and hot sauce, caviar and corn bread mix, biscotti and peanut brittle . . . not to mention the baskets, boxes, papers, ribbons, stickers, bottles, dolls, corkscrews and other novelties the gift-pack trade depends on.
Some of the products are classics, but the show traditionally is where new products are introduced and new specialty food stars are born. Two of my favorites this year were Manoucher Bread from Toronto, which includes all-natural baguettes and flatbreads, some filled with herbs or cheese, but all crusty, chewy and delicious; and Bolletje Peanut Butter Pretzels (imported from the Netherlands by Liberty Richter, Inc. of New Jersey) which are long slender crisp pretzels with just a touch of peanut butter inside.
It's virtually impossible to see, much less sample all the products. But based on a day's frantic effort, here are some predictions about a few of the specialty foods that will be big favorites in the coming months:
*Pasta. Gone are the days when you could choose between plain spaghetti and ordinary macaroni. Today pasta comes in every "all-natural" flavor and just about any color you can imagine. Among Florida-based Gaston Dupre's 18 flavors are garlic and parsley, tarragon and chives, squid ink and chocolate. Washington-based Pasta Mama's offers blueberry and blue corn fettuccine and black pepper orzo. Michigan-based Al Dente offers walnut, red chili and spicy sesame.
*Ethnic foods. Convenience is coming to this fast-growing market segment. Gourmet America of Massachusetts offers Inner Beauty prepared Caribbean sauces, such as Blue Marlin meat & Fish Sauce and Sweet Papaya Mustard. Melting Pot Foods, a new company based in Illinois, offers seven-minute Moroccan-style couscous in four flavors: Lentil Curry; Wild Mushroom; Tomato & Pea; and Lucky 7 Vegetable. "We're trying to make it easier to eat what's good for you," said the company's Sue Frankel. "And to make ethnic foods more approachable." Andre Prost Inc. of Connecticut offers "A Taste of Thai," a line of bottled sauces, packaged seasonings and rice. Athena Oil, Inc. of New York offers a wonderfully olive-tasting extra-virgin olive oil produced by a farmers' coop on the island of Crete.
*American foods. Colonial Williamsburg is offering a line of "savor flavors from the 18th century" based on foods served in the taverns of the historic village, from chutney sauce to Sally Lunn bread mix. American Spoon Foods from Michigan offers dried cranberries and cherries, meltingly tasty fruit butters, Northern honeys, and spreads and relishes. Southwest flavors are still big items. Route 66 Foods of Columbia, offers Panhandle Chili Mix and ready-to-use dried jalapeno flakes. D.L. Jardine's Texas foods offers Texas pate (based on black beans), 5-Star Barbecue Sauce and -- following a trend to ethnic crossover items -- Pistol Packin' Pasta Sauce.
*Beverages. Linden Beverage of Linden, Va., offers delicious Alpenglow sparkling ciders, some apple-based, some grape-based. Fliinko of Massachusetts is importing Pommac, a crisply sweet, sparkling, non-alcoholic Swedish fruit-flavored drink. And then there is SPORTea from Ultimate Performance Products of Denver. It's a nutrient-replacing iced tea mix, with ginseng, ginger, vitamins and spices that has no calories and is the official beverage of Everest Expeditions.