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Gourmet and Specialty Foods

Way back in the 1950s, gourmet and specialty food accounted for a tiny portion of American food purchases. Most specialty foods were luxury items like imported caviar, olive oils, cheeses, and anchovies. These, and some American products like hot sauces and quality canned soups and vegetables, were sold in small gourmet shops and specialized food sections of large department stores.

The market expanded in the 1960s, though it was still centered on imported items: jams, crackers, soups, sauces and mustards. By the 1970s, domestic specialty foods began to appear on the market, many of them sold by mail order. By the 1980s, specialty food had become a mass-market business in the United States, to the extent that today, every major supermarket has one or several specialty food sections. Print catalogs and online retailers now cater to every possible taste or culinary need.

The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) International Fancy Food and Confection Shows take place in New York, San Francisco and Chicago every year. Exhibitors hawk their specialty food products (soy caviar, to give one mainstream example) to the many thousands of visitors who come to taste, buy, or even just to look. The show’s promoters claim to offer 80,000 specialty food products from over 1,000 companies.

The American food market at one time stocked two kinds of oil—olive and vegetable. The choices today are simply staggering. Extra virgin olive oils are imported from all over the planet: Italy, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Chile, Australia, with plenty of California and even Mexican varieties. Olive oils are available infused with herbs like rosemary or even chile peppers. Olive oil tastings along the line of wine tastings have become popular; connoisseurs now debate the merits of oils with “grassy” undertones or “spicy” finishes. Restaurants and home gourmets serve olive oil to be enjoyed by itself with bread rather than mixed into any dish. Expensive grape seed oil is prized for cooking, while truffle oil, walnut, hazelnut, almond, pecan, pistachio and other delicate nut oils are drizzled on salads with a light hand indeed, given the costs.

A similar situation exists with oil’s partner-in-salad vinegar. At a tasting of aged Italian balsamic vinegars at one of the NASFT shows, the aceto balsamico was so expensive it had to be dispensed by medicine dropper. Spanish sherry vinegars can compete with Italian balsamics in the stratospheric price categories. Infused vinegars, fruit vinegars, truffle vinegars, cider vinegars, raspberry vinegars, sugar cane vinegars, and vinegars made from every conceivable variety of wine complete the mesmerizing mix.

Even salt is no longer the plain condiment or ingredient it used to be. The specialty buyer has a choice of Indian black salt, English Maldon sea salt, French white fleure de sel, coarse Kosher salt, smoked sea salt, Hawaiian black lava sea salt, Portuguese organic sea salt, Bolivian rose mountain salt, Balinese sea salt, or even the distinctive pink flaked salt from Australia’s Murray River region.

Mustard buyers can still opt for the plain old yellow American variety in smooth or coarse textures for their hamburgers or hot dogs, but they may also decide to splurge on any of dozens of French Dijon varieties, British Colman’s powdered mustard, Chinese mustard, red raspberry wasabi mustard, honey mustard, horseradish mustard, beer mustard, jalapeño mustard, sweet German mustard, green peppercorn mustard, cranberry mustard, Vermont maple mustard, Louisiana Creole mustard, Vidalia sweet onion mustard, to name only a few.

Beyond once staple products like oil, vinegar, salt and mustard come an array of specialty food products—home-grown and imported—that seem limited only by the imagination: sauces and condiments, relishes and salad dressings, olives and pickles, marinades and spices, crackers and cookies, cereals and grains, seeds and nuts, chocolates and confections, cheeses and yogurts, coffee and tea, meat and fish delicacies, dips and spreads, jellies and preserves, vegetables and fruits, in addition to luxury products like truffles, foie gras, and caviar.

The American specialty food market is now extremely competitive; the wisdom of the market has not been lost on large-scale importers and retailers. Large operators like niche grocery chain Trader Joe’s and even mega-retailers like the Costco warehouse club have made a business out of contracting for high quality products like extra virgin olive oil in bulk and selling them at lower prices; both these companies receive consistent high marks in blind taste tests of their oils. Trader Joe’s also produces its own branded lines of sauces, condiments, confections, and other products. Yet the same army of “foodies” that supports the ever-growing specialty food market consistently contributes brave new entrepreneurs to the struggle. There will always be chefs who dream of commercializing their prized family recipe for preserved cherry tomatoes or port-infused apple butter. Some succeed only at a local level, while others are destined for true greatness.