By Suzanne Farrell
“Nice to see you,” said my buddy’s father. I nodded, smiled.
“Do you have bags, son?” he asked my friend, who affirmed. “Stay until 3:30. Don’t miss it.” I stared in gracious silence at the man, the architect of the ruse, the reason why, for the third time, I was about to spend an afternoon pretending to be someone I am not. We split from him quickly. I practiced the pronunciation of the company I now claimed as my employer, and glanced at my friend’s nametag. “Fred.” Right.
We were at one of the world’s largest international gourmet food shows. Trade-only. Thousands of vendors peddle everything at these affairs, from dill pickles to do-it-yourself soufflé. Triangle crusts soaked in olive oil, precious truffles, cups of flavored vodka, and so many cubes of cheese you could erect a life-size fort topped with a tower of horseradish cheddar; all for the sake of the foodies who buy on behalf of restaurants, make up corporate gift bags, or run chic Upper West Side shops.
But my friend and me – we aren’t “foodies.” We just look like them. And with a little experience, we’ve learned to act like them.
Sampling at a gourmet food show (when you’re not in the gourmet food business) is something of an art. You must look serious enough to have registered, but eager enough to invite laughing sips of bubbly lemonade. You must stay at a booth long enough to exclaim, “Mmm….Delish!” and flash I’ll-take-a-goodie-bag eyes at the exhibitor. But you must dash away when he initiates the dreaded business card exchange. The best booths are the ones crowded with middle-aged women – if stealthy you can dart in between their overstuffed purses and grab a jar of black sea salt flakes or pickled ginger. You must not look at your loot until you have turned the corner. No need to waste time reading labels on the show floor.
At our first couple shows, my buddy and I messed up. Too much talk. I remember our pitiful haul from the first time – hard candies, some spice packs, and a pamphlet about Swedish spring water.
Now veterans, we had a tight story. We claimed to be “newbies to the biz,” working for “Bill.” Our imaginary boss was stern; a real toughie, but appreciative of good work. He sent us to the show for free samples, as many as our bags and biceps could manage. We spent the afternoon exclaiming, “Bill loves raspberry!” and “Oh, if Bill could taste these figs! We should take some back to the office.”
We followed new traffic rules, too. Walk briskly through Italy to get a sense of the oils and wines. Spend a few minutes in organics downstairs. Linger in open seating areas, chock-a-block with tables of bread and spread. Go easy on crackers, but grab the occasional meatball or spoonful of ziti. Skip the United Kingdom.
The con, according to the lumps and bumps in my purse, was working.
We took stock at quarter past three, comparing our items, noting duplicates. I assumed we had eeked everything yummy out of the day. This was success, right? Measured in ounces, like a diamond heist. I felt we were in good shape for closing time. Then I remembered, “Don’t miss 3:30.”
The gourmet food show shuts down at 4 o’clock sharp. We hadn’t stayed for Packup before. Why had my friend’s father insisted we stick it out this time? “To him,” explained my friend reverently, “Packup is the high holiday of the year, the most important event; better than Hanukkah or Passover or New Year’s.” Indeed, I recalled that his father had been toting a duffel bag and a sober attitude. He was wearing sneakers. I grumbled at my slipper shoes. I figured fine, let’s stay for Packup, if nothing else, to watch how they break everything down in just half an hour.
At 3:25, my jaw – working hard on a sun-dried tomato – dropped, as the rolling bags came out. Almost tripping over one, I saw that it was lined with temperature-control fabric; a soft cooler on wheels. Oversized shopping bags, totes, duffels, and, honest to goodness, luggage. Large, upholstered luggage complete with freezer packs. These were pros.
“Fred” and I decided to split up. I took the lower level, he the upper. Just in time, too, because with the half hour, Packup began. I saw men sweeping jars of chopped tomatoes into cardboard boxes; women crowding around a table of wafers like hungry fish to crumbs; cheese makers plunking down 20-lb blocks only to see them vanish within seconds; a bent, ancient lady shuffling away with a huge wheel of parmesan, hugging it to her breast, jubilant. Everything I touched turned to gold. “Take it!” said the exhibitors who, an hour before, had only wanted to offer their info. “Can I take two?” I asked, still loyal to my imaginary boss.
My arms quickly grew exhausted. My right pinky toe gave way to blisters, slowing me down. I stopped twice to rearrange, placing the aloe vera juice on the bottom, the mushroom fettuccini on the top. I fished out of my purse the plastic shopping bag I had brought, and regretted that I hadn’t known to bring something sturdier. The baguette was scraping against my right ear. Delirious, I snatched an ice cream bar.
My phone buzzed. I spat, “Need more time!” and was greeted with the same from my collaborator. He could have been somewhere in Greek olives; I was flying through New England jams. All around me whizzed orange-shirted volunteers, couples tag-teaming with garbage bags, staffers on forklifts, exhibitors rapidly packing up non-perishables and flinging the fresh goods at passersby. A bedlam of bon vivants.
At 4 pm I met up with my partner, and he warned me to hide as much as I could. The security guards were curbing the mass-market effect by repossessing items from fleeing foodies. Much of the confiscated goods would be donated, and I saw near the exit huge bins filling up, like barrels at airport security. It looked like a ton of food had already been claimed for the poor. Really, would they need my chopped prosciutto? My kumquat jelly?
“Fred” made a break for it, sliding onto the escalator between two giggling women, both laden with vinegar and salsa. I chose a different tack, walking boldly to the exit, ignoring the security guard’s fingers as they brushed my elbow. I think I may have swatted his hand away, like a fly. I felt a little bad, but I knew he wouldn’t follow me. It was too big a crowd; too many foodies and fakers to sort through.
We made it to the shuttle bus and collapsed into our seats, comfortable with our deviance. My friend, contemplating the afternoon, said, “That’s as close as I’ve ever come to an orderless society.”
Back at my apartment, we divvied up the items in the tradition of our mothers – lay everything out on the kitchen table and take turns choosing. I swiped his coffee right away. He shot back by grabbing my fettuccini. We split the fizzy ginger juice.
“Whatever happened to your dad?”
“I walked right past him,” he said, selecting soft caramels. “We didn’t even acknowledge each other. I think I had more than he did.”
For weeks after the show, I made real pasta, not out of a box, but hand strung and stuffed in a plastic bag tied with pretty ribbon. I washed down French chocolate with energy drinks. I seasoned fish with Asian dry rub. I brought European pastries to dinner parties. I was a gourmet, a lawless epicurean. I didn’t just make dinner. I made cuisine.
Suzanne Farrell is a second year Liberal Studies student and co-editor of canon. She is writing a thesis that investigates, plays with, and sometimes skirts, childhood memory. She doesn’t like kumquat jelly after all.