Return to the Index

GP 2 August 2006: Rum and the Fancy Food Show

Late Night Sunday.  After our heavily manicured meal at a Lower East Side High Falutin Cuisinaria (reminding us of those high design dinners we had in Milan), it was with some relief that we checked into an Irish watering hole on the upper East Side of Manhattan.  We were fooled by the place.  We had expected one of those bars where young turks in suspenders show off their epaulets to potential girl friends and carry on stand-up conversations not reminiscent of Paul’s speech to the Thessalonians. 

But the bar stools were worn down, no studs were in attendance, and it was for sure the kind of place that Mayor Bloomberg never frequents.  One fellow was crouched over, watching the TV but with no sigh of contentment, and 3 gentle ladies in their high forties giggled mid-bar.  Before Bloomberg outlawed everything, there would have been a lot of smoke in the air, maybe even a cheap cigar or pipe in evidence.  Yes, this sipping post was more 1984 than James Joyce, an Orwellian dive where down and out citizens evade the gaze of the state and have conversations that do not reek of self-importance. 

A Broth of a Man.  We were there to meet up with Ian Williams, a journalist and jolly troublemaker from Liverpool, who’s now part of Manhattan and a scribbler who can ramble on most any subject.  We were to talk about rum, an import which, as we said in “Rum at Its Best,” we are beginning to investigate.  Williams is out with Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776, a tale we are avid to read.  Since we sampled a few rums with him, accompanied by Guinness, and since we talked about everything under the sun, we hardly got to the subject at hand. 

His first book was The Alms Trade: Charity, Past, Present, and Future.  But he’s evolved.  There had always been a little fondness for rum in his family, and this was rekindled when he was in Martinique.  There he discovered that there were a raft of very well-wrought Caribbean rums that none of us know much about, since the big spirits companies have sewed up the global booze trade with their commodity brands that pretend to have taste.  Bacardi, in particular, has become the Wal-Mart of the rum business.  What Williams teaches us in his book is that rum was a catalyst for our own Revolution, as the Brits tried to mess about with the rum trade, enacting noxious little laws such as  the Molasses Act, the Sugar Act, and the like. 

How very appropriate that America once celebrated the Fourth of July with Fish House Punch, since rum is what gives it its wallop.  Herein the Crown learned not to come between a colonial and his drink.  The British have a passion for playing on addictions:  their opium trade, sourced in India, led to the opium wars and the end of China’s empire. 

Williams is a big and hearty man, a jolly companion as well as a good read.  Throw in a rum that has some art to it and you have quite an evening.  That’s what eating and drinking are all about—friendship and craft. 

The Fancy Food Trade.  It was with rum in mind that we chatted about the recent Fancy Food Show with our colleague who put in time there.  SpiceLines, our sister site, reviews this year’s offerings.  Probably little that’s artful or friendly ever emerges from the Javits Convention Center, which is a monstrosity on the West Side.  Every Tom, Dick, and Harry was peddling his own finger lickin’ sauce there.  The sauces are ubiquitous and awful, and the event would immediately gain stature, if not revenues, if all these gooey concoctions were banned from the show.  This year, one of the ill-conceived, hot numbers was flavored skewers, which are apparently selling like hotcakes, but which don’t do much for your cooking.  Our associate found one skewer-maker who believes in 57 varieties just like H.J. Heinz: 

11:36: A cheery gent passes around shrimp on a skewer.  New concept; Seasoned skewers—Indian Mango Curry, Mexican Fiesta, Thai Coconut Lime—infuse flavor into grilled food.  Brainchild of old Seattle company (100-year old mint oil manufacturer). “We challenged our scientists to come up with something new and this was it,” chirps a Callison’s rep.  This item is getting a lot of attention (www.seasonedskewers.com). 

Eventually, however, one does find the needle in the haystack.  There were a few specials that were special at this specialty food show: 

10:36: Great discovery: Benimosu vinegar from the Iio Jozo (Brewery) Rice Vinegar Company.  Color of bright red strawberries.  Plain gold capped bottle with elegant Japanese calligraphy on the label.  Made from fermented purple sweet potatoes and rice, aged for a year.  So soft and mild that you could almost drink it over ice; just enough acidity to make a lovely vinaigrette for salads or fresh vegetables.  Rep Ami Nakanishi touts health benefits: “Lot of polyphenols. We’ll be in Whole Foods very, very soon” (www.nymtc.com). 

The Long Tail.   In “Business Blogs” on the Global Province, we make reference to The Long Tail where Chris Anderson claims that we are at the end of giant, mass markets as we migrate to specialty products and niches.  ‘Specialness,’ we would add, is what an advanced industrial nation with outsized costs can bring to the global economic party. 

That’s why recondite rums and specialty foods are of such interest.  They symbolize what has to happen to the economy.  Truly special niches have to be uncovered where special craft and intimacy between makers and users are the key drivers of individuality.  To varying degrees mass manufacturing, mass marketing, and mass attitudes have to be set aside.  The kind of history and cultural context that Ian Williams brings to rum is integral to the value-added product, making a drink more than a drink, a foodstuff more than something to fill the mouth. 

The Iceman Cometh.  This summer, as the thermometer does 100-degree dances here and in Europe, we are reminded of Frederic Tudor, a specialty pioneer who is celebrated in The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle.  Tudor not only fed ice to the locals in New England, but sent it out to the wide, wide world, packed in sawdust, aboard ships that visited many ports of call, to include the Caribbean.  His handiwork made artisan rums just that much better.  He created the ice business and dominated it, having several times skirted bankruptcy until he finally seized success: 

Since his return to Boston in the spring of 1823, his ice business had gone well, expanded, and become organized to the point that by March 1827 he had finished harvesting ice for that season.  His ice trade was two decades old now.  Frederic calculated the total shipments of goods from the port of Boston in 1826-1827 at three thousand tons, of which he had shipped two-thirds.  His strongholds—New Orleans, Charleston, and Havana—took most of that stock.  Competitors, who had sprung up once he had established the trade, shipped to such places as Wilmington, Delaware; Norfolk, Virginia; and Martinique.  One even dared to ship to Charleston; Frederic met him with a price war. 

The Service Paradox.  At any moment, there are a host of opportunities out there for someone looking to do something special.  Even if one is playing with something as simple as ice.  But it takes art and friendship, and probably a whole lot of personal service.  What Tudor did was figure out how to get his product in the hands of those who had a yen for it—not an inconsiderable task. 

The economists tell us that services now dominate manufacturing in the U.S. economy.  But don’t tell that to the American consumer who cannot find service anywhere.  When he calls a store or a company for a product, he gets tossed into a Catch-22 automated phone system that does nothing for him.  If we are to succeed in a specialty economy that is defined by craft and friendliness, we cannot ask people to talk to nobody. 

Talking to the Customer. You can’t have much of a business if you don’t have time to talk to anybody—the new malaise of almost all of the telephone companies and the airlines.  We spent 10 minutes the other night waiting for someone to come on the line.  Williams tells us his is a ‘sociable’ history of rum, and ‘sociable’ is what niche marketing is all about.  By definition, any business that does not talk intimately with its customers is a commodity business. 

The musical Paint Your Wagon gets to heart of the matter in “I Talk to the Trees”: 

I talk to the trees
But they don't listen to me
I talk to the stars
But they never hear me

The breeze hasn't time
To stop, and hear what I say
I talk to them all
In vain

But suddenly, my words
Reach someone else’s ear
At someone else’s heart
Strings too

I tell you my dreams
And while you're listening to me
I suddenly see them
Come true 

Ah, if only we can reach somebody else’s ear, we might buy something from them. 

P.S.  Wal-Mart, the ultimate mass marketer, is having its share of troubles, which is reflected in its share price.  Its strategy has been to buy at the lowest, lowest price and to sell low quality products for middle market prices.  Service has been nil.  It has just had to get out of Germany and South Korea, while posting just 1.2% sales growth in its American stores.  Very slowly, it is moving to a new strategy, but is having terrible problems shucking its old clothes. 

P.P.S.  In “One of a Kind,” we mention Paco Underhill, who says our mall culture is dead—they are boxes offering the same chain stores and the same repetitious products that are numbing to the consumer.  Even museums, with their overpriced and rather dreary merchandise, offer a more interesting merchandising experience to jaded consumers. 

P.P.P.S.  Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, an important but hardly brilliant West Coast magazine now owned by Conde Nast.  Good ideas float through it, but its format, design, and editorial style are frustrating and inaccessible, such that we always debate whether to maintain or end our subscription.  That said, we think you have to pay attention to Anderson.  He is sort of saying that the 80/20 rule is being turned on end.  For the last couple of decades, companies have been prompted to focus on the 20% of their products that generate 80% of their volume, and, it’s supposed, virtually all of their profits.  Naturally this ‘truth’ has been most trumpeted just as it is becoming untrue.  In a variety of ways, changes of technology now permit us to make a pot load from the 80% everybody is telling us to forget about.  The 80% is becoming vastly more important, and the 20% much less valuable.  Having put his ‘long tail’ theory forward in Wired back in 2004, he’s now expanded it into a book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.  Some reviewers think the idea just applies to media-type businesses: we think it applies to every business under the global sun.  By the way, we did not come upon his Long Tail in Wired, but stumbled upon it while researching business blogs on the Internet.

Back to Top of Page

Return to the Index of Letters from the Global Province

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

Copyright 2006 GlobalProvince.com