I've never in my life desired a low-sodium biscuit, but I let the well-groomed woman at the Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C. this week goad me into eating one.
"They're soooo good, I swear," she says.
It's perfectly fluffy and edible, this low-sodium biscuit, but seconds after it's gone I'm regretting having just wolfed down the whole thing. That's precious space in my stomach that I've just forfeited for an unremarkable food I'd never be interested in eating again.
I realized in that moment I'd violated two rules I'd just learned about surviving food shows: Take one bite of a sample, unless it's extraordinary. And only try foods you expect to be extraordinary.
I know what you're saying: What's wrong with a free biscuit? How can you be complaining about a food show where people offer you free samples of magnificent gourmet food left and right?
For the uninitiated, the Fancy Food Show might seem like the most wondrous, Wonka Factory of a convention there could be. Imagine 2,250 companies from 100 countries hawking their wares with alluringly decorated booths and encouraging smiles – and the vast majority of them pushing nibbles on anyone who wanders past. Candy apple caramel popcorn, madam? Mandarin-scented turron candy from Italy? Tunisia's finest dates? Handmade sausage ravioli?
But to think that the Fancy Food Show is all fun and games is an amateur's mistake. This trade show – and any other big food festival or county fair with free samples, for that matter — can give you a bellyache if you're not careful.
So I sought out a professional for some advice: Nycci Safier Nellis, a food writer and publisher of TheListAreYouOnIt.com, who attends food shows and festivals all the time and knows a thing or two about how to keep your wits about you in the face of so many temptations.
So how does Safier Nellis survive these events without overdoing it or gaining dozens of unwanted pounds? First off, "I don't need to eat everything in there," she says. That's easy for someone who gets to try exotic olive oils and cheeses all the time to say. But Safier Nellis has a point: A lot of the food at these shows isn't all that special or different. And seller of chocolate-covered pretzels is not going to be that different than the one down the way. So be choosy with what you decide to try.
Next, she says, "Take a bite of something, and if it's not that great, put it down. You don't have to finish it. If I taste something fantastic, yes, I will finish it. But I am good at taking just one bite."
And sometimes, staying one step ahead of a uncomfortably full belly isn't so much about how you're eating but rather how you're moving from showroom to showroom. "I always take the stairs," Safier Nellis says.
I had no such guidance for my earlier forays into Fancy Food Shows in 2005 and 2011 as I embarked on aimless missions through cavernous convention centers trying every pot sticker, cheese slice, truffle, and beet chip that was offered to me without a second thought. And thus I ended the day with a sense of awe at the incredible array of trendy foods and flavors under one roof, but also with a massive and seemingly interminable stomach ache.
Few foods at these shows are repellent, but many are familiar calorie-laden comfort foods, or new twists on them, like the bacon peanut brittle one South Carolina man continue to press on me (over email) weeks after I'd met him at the show. Some are even downright absurd, like the organic water Jessica Goldstein wrote about last year.
Still, this year there are plenty of lovely offerings from new entrepreneurs seeking a niche in the ever-proliferating food landscape: from fresh jamon Iberico (a new alternative to the aged version) to sweet African chilies.
Thanks to Safier Nellis's advice, and my own newly devised tactic of striding rapidly through the convention center so you're getting a little exercise while nibbling, I managed to escape the show feeling full, but still one smoothie sample ahead of overindulgence. Even she admits it's not easy to emerge from the food show unscathed. "It takes a lot of practice; it's hard work," she says.
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