For four days this past week the Georgia World Congress Center transformed into something that looked like the world’s largest fresh market. The showroom aisles brimmed with mounds of apples, tomatoes and peppers. Cut carrots, cubed squash and single servings of blueberries came gussied up in the latest, newest packaging that’s sure to show up in a supermarket near you.
The occasion was the annual convention and expo for the Produce Marketing Association, called the “Fresh Summit.” Exhibitors on the showroom floor ranged from major produce companies, such as Sunkist and Chiquita, to marketing delegations from Mexico, South Korea and other countries. Georgia Grown, the state’s fruit and vegetable growers’ association, was proudly flying its flag amidst a sea of pecans, peanuts, muscadines and Vidalia onions. Represent!
I wandered up and down the aisles for two hours, and by the end of it I felt ready to photosynthesize myself, though I suspected I had somehow become genetically modified en route.
Everywhere I walked, I saw glistening grapes and pop-art-perfect tomatoes. Florida avocados the size of ostrich eggs are now called “Slimcados” because they have so much less fat (and flavor) than everyone’s favorite Haas avocado. Lots of marketing and more than a little manipulation goes into the selling of nature’s bounty.
For instance, whole and cut apples now come in a variety of flavors other than the expected apple. Grape-flavored Grapples (the first popular brand) now have company in Crazy Apples, which come in grape and pomegranate. Kids, will you eat this?
Getting dubious children to consider snacking on fruit and vegetables seemed a major theme at this show. Among the various lunchbox stuffers on display were Dippin’ Stix — little packages of vegetal matter paired with flavorful, gooey dips. Choices include carrots with hummus, apples with caramel and (ahem) pickle slices with bacon ranch dip. Tiny boxes of Sun-Maid raisins remain a snacking staple, though parents now have the choice between the traditional red box and the white box filled with organic raisins.
Sunset — a canny packager of pretty, consistently sized tomatoes — offers an 8-pack carton of individually wrapped Mimi “candy tomatoes,” i.e., super-sweet cherry tomatoes. It looks kind of like a carton of Capri Sun drinks if you squint, and I think this is on purpose. Grab a juice and a tomato snack, and you’ve got a healthy-leaning lunch to send your child out into the world with. This seems like the kind of product that would have found a place in our fridge when our kids were little, though we would have felt guilt about succumbing to the siren call of packaging.
Sadly, Sunset has also sadly figured out a way to turn beautiful dark-skinned tomatoes (which you might mistake for fresh-from-the-garden Cherokee Purples) into cardboard.
Another major leitmotiv at the show was convenience. Getting those fresh veggies from shelf to stove to gullet without ever holding a knife or dirtying a pot? Yes, it can be done.
Ocean Mist displayed artichokes in a microwaveable bag. Just pierce and nuke. Earth Exotics offers cubed butternut squash or a “Tuscan Medley Supreme” of cut veggies to microwave, roast or grill right in its special metal pan. If you are willing to sully knife and pot, then Sunset packages six on-the-vine tomatoes with a seasoning mix and a bag of croutons for a fresh tomato soup kit.
One fellow demonstrated a pomegranate deseeder that looked like an upside-down dog dish with big holes in the base. He push-smashed a half pomegranate through this fruit gin and seemed to break a lot of the pips. Not pretty. I think I’ll stick with my preferred method of seeding in a bowl of cold water.
The bigger companies were putting their names on all kinds of products. Sunkist now offers branded energy drinks and citrus mints that don’t contain a lick of actual juice. Dole has a few different kinds of bananas to sample, including red bananas and the Manzano variety that has a bright, tangy flavor. Company representative Rick Huber says the Manzano doesn’t grow in as many places as the common Cavendish banana, and is unavailable at times, so retailers aren’t as keen to pick it up. (They may need to if Panama fungus turns out to be the threat to Cavendish bananas that some fear.)
Exotic produce suppliers, such as Melissa’s Produce and Freida’s Specialty Produce, were on hand to show us what new fruits and vegetables were poised to become objects of food adoration. Frieda’s was showing off a basket of finger limes — an inch-long citrus you can cut open and squeeze to release its juice cells. They are like bursty little orbs of caviar that taste like lime. I can’t wait to cook with these.
Over at Melissa’s, there was one closely guarded package of Trinidad Scorpion peppers, which clock in at 1.4 million Scoville units (the measure of spicy heat in peppers) and purport to be the spiciest peppers on the planet.
Melissa’s will also begin marketing a young coconut punch, which is not a fruity cocktail but a boring tool. You use it to push a straw-sized hole into the shell. With the new popularity of coconut water as a replenishing sports drink, this should prove a big seller. After all, not everyone wants to saw the top off a young coconut.
I was personally excited by the medium-sized eggplants that several marketers had on display. They look to be the perfect size for roasting or stuffing. I’m not sure they’re innovative or suitable for razzamatazz packaging, and I pray they don’t taste like grape, but they sure look tasty.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog