By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune reporter
May 17, 2012
The first thing that occurs to you upon entering the annual Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place, the annual international gathering of manufacturers of stuff that makes you look fat in those jeans, organized each year by the National Confectioners Association and featuring almost 600 exhibitors, is that this is heaven, a childhood daydream. Until 15 minutes and 17 organic chocolate peanut clusters later, when it's looking more like hell, a weight-conscious adult's trial by gummy bears.
It's also the kind of place where you're sampling new sweet and salty M&M trail mix one moment and tasting dried cactus the next. The kind of place where you get into a conversation about domestic partnerships with the maker of Mike and Ike candies: "Theirs is just a business partnership," a Mike and Ike marketing rep said. "They are just friends."
A few new foodstuffs stand out.
No. 1: Excellent chocolate bars. Hammond's recently launched a PB&J Sandwich chocolate bar that, despite that iffy premise, nicely distills a drip of jelly and a hint of peanut into a few dozen tiny milk chocolate squares. My favorite new bars were from Seattle Chocolates, which had eggnog chocolate bars that squash marshmallow, candy cane and eggnog into the chocolate.
No. 2: "Smart" beef jerky. Old Dutch's new grilled steak jerky and Trail's Best Bacon Jerky (gnarled slices of bacon, not bacon-flavored mystery meat) turn a former truck-stop guilty pleasure into a serious option.
No. 3: S'mores please. Expect lots of pseudo-campfire tastes from candy-makers. The best of the bunch: Russell Stover's surprisingly substantial individually wrapped marshmallow-graham cracker sandwiches.
No. 4: Thoughtful junk food. Bell Plantations' PB Thins peanut butter crackers, containing powdered peanut butter, have a deceptively rich taste and hint of salt you get from a junkier classic. Yet it's 100 calories a serving. Likewise, Gourmet Basics' air popped fry-sticks have big, fresh-tasting flavors (rosemary, vinegar, cracked black pepper) but feel distinctly outside vending machine chic. And only 2 grams of fat.
No. 5: Hannah's Pickled Egg. It's pink and pickled and comes in a small plastic sack. I asked Steve Hofford, general manager of Monogram Foods, what its shelf life was: "No, you mean, what is its half life?"