About eight years ago, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited a Bay Area Safeway. En route to a Monterey think tank, Yeltsin's American handlers decided to give the commander-in-chief a tour of the behemoth supermarket chain.
As the politicos piled out of their limos and strolled into the produce section, it was noted that the Russian president grew strangely quiet as he contemplated a pyramid of glistening tangerines. Known for his erratic behavior, Yeltsin appeared to be in a daze as he wandered through the fruit and vegetables. A teardrop was seen trickling down his pudgy cheek as he climbed back into the waiting limo. Perhaps he was remembering himself as a child, trudging through deep snowdrifts for a paltry Soviet cabbage and a shriveled beet. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, decadent American kids were feasting on pineapple and artichokes.
If US produce was enough to bring the Evil Empire's leader to tears, a visit to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade would certainly have induced a Stoli Limonnaya coma. Held in San Francisco's cavernous Moscone Convention Center, the annual food show feels a lot like Vegas -- no windows, no clocks -- but instead of chips and cards, the tables are piled high with food.
The phone-book-sized program lists thousands of vendors from all over the world. And the food represents everything from the trendy to the traditional. One booth hawks colorful flavored sugar to rim cocktail glasses. But take a few steps more and suddenly you're in the kosher section and Hasidic men wearing yarmulkes are frying up latkes. There are sausages, sushi, spring rolls, artisan cheese, and Belgian waffles. There is caviar and "cheesecake in a jar." Not to mention organic berries, pastel lollipops, tropical trail mix, free-trade coffee, dry-rub spices, Vermont maple syrup, new and improved Pop Rocks, candy in the shape of a moose head, and jerky made from assorted animals. The sound of lips smacking, gullets swallowing, and people insisting "Try this," "Try this," makes a resounding orgasmic din.
Craig Muchow, general manager and visionary genius behind Fartless Factory products, could probably care less about what Boris Yeltsin thinks. All he knows is that the system is working for him. The food show has been a total success and when Muchow flies home to Gooding, Idaho, he'll be busy filling orders for his special nongaseous products. How did Mr. Muchow stumble upon this boon to humanity? Like so many great inventions, Fartless Factory started with a suggestion from some flatulent army buddies. "I fed a bunch of old army buddies some chili that I had made," Muchow recounts. "The next morning they were all complaining about the fact that they had farted so bad the night before that they couldn't sleep. Long story short, they demanded that I take the farts out of the beans. So I fiddled around with different beans and I did."
Oregon-based enchilada sauce entrepreneur Betty Fitch also hopes to strike it rich. Her claim to fame is Aunt Betty's Mole Sauce. Like everyone here, she hopes that her product will someday be as familiar as Uncle Ben's or that other famous aunt, Jemima. She is unfailingly convinced that her mole recipe is the best in the world. "My family and relatives all told me that mine is the best and that's why I'm here," Fitch beams. That's how the whole thing usually gets started. A well-intentioned family member starts the ball rolling by telling a relative that they make the best cookies, fudge, or barbecue sauce in the history of food. And then folks start gettin' uppity dreams of becoming Famous Amos or Mrs. Fields. "I really hope to be the new Hidden Valley Ranch," Fitch confides.
Captain Rodney, a large man from Tennessee, has been told for years that he shouldn't be hiding his jellies, salad dressings, pancake mix, and hot sauce under the proverbial bushel. So Rodney took their advice and here he is, hoping to turn on the world with his smile and his top-secret recipes. One of his favorite inventions is his award-winning and incredibly unique Captain Rodney's Strawberry Pecan Pepper Jelly. "Have a taste of this; you'll never taste anything like it," he promises. The man does not lie. But with so many other hot sauces in the world, why does he think his is so special? "Because no one has made anything like it," he answers simply. Although it's hard to argue with reasoning like that, a short tour of the food show makes it painfully obvious that many, many people labor under the misconception that they make the world's best salsa.
The worst offenders, however, have to be the tea people. Smiling vendors offer tea in traditional bags, tea in bottles, tea in mister containers. "Take a sample," they whisper, like pushers in bad drug movies. One tea pusher hands out CDs entitled "The Sounds of Tranquility: Breathe and Relax with Music from Tey," which is probably a more harmonious way of spelling "tea."
Although there are lots of out-of-towners, East Bay businesses are well represented. Emeryville's DonSueMor Madeleine is here, the makers of the scrumptious Proustian cookie that one can find in many a coffee shop. The California Olive Oil Council of Berkeley has a large table -- ever-vigilant in its epic battle against inferior-quality olive oils. And of course there's a booth for celebrity chef Narsai David but alas, the Kensington cook is nowhere to be found.
But the presence of gossip columnist Rona Barrett easily makes up for the absence of David. Barrett has turned over a new leaf; instead of dishing about the stars, now the dishes are the stars. She has started a company called Miss Rona's Lavender, and her line of products includes lavender ginger sauce, lavender honey mustard, three different kinds of lavender cookies, and lavender applesauce. People who really, really like the, uh, interesting flavor of lavender will love this stuff. Maybe the communists were right after all.