• Otter Views: A Sunday in Moscone

    The chance to undergo taxing urban challenges took me Sunday to the Moscone Center in San Francisco and the Ikea store in Palo Alto. It was like going through the Louvre twice. I’m still recovering.

    I hadn’t meant to visit both destinations on the same day, but a last-minute invitation to the “Winter Fancy Food Show” in the city coincided with a need for special Swedish light bulbs.

    The bulbs were for a cool white floor lamp I had found in PG’s Treasure Shop thrift store. The lamp stands about four feet tall and looks like a big glowing silkworm. Its pleated paper shade hides a metal pole with three spaced bulb outlets. But my lamp only had the top bulb. Its slender coupling looked suspiciously European-gauge.

    “You have the other two bulbs?” I asked rather hopelessly.

    “I’m sorry. You’ll have to go to Ikea for those.”

    I had heard dimly of Ikea but had never seen or visited one. From hearsay, I had a mental image of a very modern split-level building with tinted windows, blond flooring and stairways as sleek and spidery as Nordic suspension bridges. In the showrooms, exquisite Scandinavian furnishings would be displayed as sparely as art in a gallery. I had also heard something about meatballs, but that part didn’t make sense.

    Before I could solve the meatball mystery, the Winter Fancy Food Show beckoned. An acquaintance who owns a cheese shop in Reno had mentioned I might enjoy seeing how the “specialty food” world does business. Threading a gauntlet of pink-clad popcorn girls along Mission Street, I followed a human wave of culinary enthusiasts into the vast, vaulted atrium of Moscone Center.

    I was to meet the Reno cheese monger at a certain booth at 11 a.m. for something called a “parm cracking,” but first I had to register for the expo and pay the $60 entry fee. This was when I discovered the Fancy Food Show is not open to the mildly curious general public.

    “Who are you with?” inquired a steely-eyed woman at one of the sign-in counters. Her fingers hovered over a laptop that presumably tracked all expo presenters and legitimate attendees. Her question caught me off-guard.

    “I’m with the . . . uh . . . press?” I offered.

    Her fingers briskly dialed up the official media list and prepared to scroll. “What press, please?”

    “Cheese press!” I tried. “United Cheese Press. I should be listed there as Stevens. No? You sure? I wonder what could have happened?”

    “No other affiliation?” she asked brusquely, already beckoning the next person in line.

    “Um, I work p-p-part-time for a coffee shop,” I stammered.

    “Why didn’t you just say so?” Swiping my debit card, she stamped my paperwork, gave me a receipt for the fee and handed me a scan-able ID placard proclaiming in all caps: “FOODSERVICE.” It wasn’t a Rolling Stones all-access pass, but it got me down to the main floor.

    There several thousand specialty food booths snaked in a conga line through the four labyrinthine Moscone expo halls. Throngs of food buyers, brokers, distributors, exporters, importers, wholesalers, retailers – even humble foodservice personnel – crowded the narrow aisles to schmooze the presenters and sample far too many dainties to list here.

    I was able to witness the “parm cracking,” in which the wonderfully named Italian cheese monger Giacomo Veraldi used two almond-shaped wedges and one vigorous thrust of a scoring tool to crack open 80-pound wheel of parmesan cheese. It was tangy.

    There followed several hours of trekking and tasting: cheeses, chocolates and chutneys; meats, mustards and mush- rooms; teas, toffees and tapenades; jellies, juices and gelatos; seaweeds, shellfish and sorbets; coffees, croissants, cashews and . . . you get the idea.

    Geographic groupings aside (two dozen countries and as many U.S. states had their own display zones), there was wide gustatory variance from vendor to vendor. Thus, one might down jalapeno popcorn atop mango gelato atop olive tapenade atop slivered corned beef atop coffee espresso atop whipped escargot atop “Puff n Muff” marshmallows and come away with what one expo-goer called “food show belly.”

    Reeling from sensory overload and leery of food show belly, I bid ciao to the Italian parm cracker, sprung my truck from the parking garage, and sped south toward Palo Alto and my rendezvous with all things lingonberry.

    Amazed to find Ikea nearly as vast and crowded as the Moscone Center, I followed the floor arrows and made dutiful circuits of both levels. Furnished room after furnished room wheeled past in a slow diorama of bedding, chairs, carpets, mirrors, dressers, light fixtures, kitchen appliances, even toilets whose Saran-wrapped seats bore the thoughtful reminder: “For Display Only.”

    I did find the light bulbs and the famous meatballs. Ja!

    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 16, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views

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