Sunday, September 14, 2008

Did a Next Big Thing find me?

Some trends emerge from the undergrounds of New York, L.A. or San Francisco, pushed along by sub-cultures with a penchant for black clothes and body piercing. Other times they crop up in the checkout lines of suburban supermarkets, alongside the string cheese and Swifter refills. So it was this weekend, when one household had to choose between turning the cupboard into a bookcase or actually going grocery shopping. I knew I should’ve just started slotting the books instead of risking a coin toss. But at least I got a glimpse of what could become a popular menu item, judging from how quickly it’s spreading in white-Zinfandel America.

I first spotted it a week earlier in a sleepy burb called Hampton Bays, where one of the new dining choices is a breakfast and lunch place with a Latino flavor. Waiting for my sandwich, I saw that a whole rack of a soft drink cooler had filled with 16-ounce, lidded plastic cups, each containing a liquid the color of a cantaloupe. Pieces of fruit seemed to have settled in the bottom of each clear cup.

As I was waiting, a patron came in and grabbed one from the case. He drank the liquid in a flash, then used his straw to spear the fruit. Then he took another.

Another customer came in. He took one of the items, too. Same process.

And another.

“Hey,” I asked the clerk, “what are those?”

“They’re a drink made with a little fruit juice and cut-up melon, pineapple, mango and papaya. They’re two-fifty each.”

“I’ll take one…What do you call them?”

“We call them frutas.” Others use the more proper name of aqua fresca de fruta.

Fast-forward five days, to the moment our pantry spider webs were to be cleared by a rare supermarket expedition. As usual, I was forbidden to go, a sentence I’ll serve for life because I tend to buy nothing but peanut butter, a packet of sauerkraut, and maybe some Scottish shortbread.

When my wife returned, I started un-bagging the bounty with the zeal of Robinson Crusoe on a cruise liner home. “Did you see this?” she asked. Plunk. She puts down a pre-packaged fruta made with peaches. Plunk. Another, also pre-packaged, made with grapefruit. Plunk. Yet another, also made with grapefruit. “It’s something new. Looks good, doesn’t it?”

She wasn’t with me when I had my first fruta encounter. Clearly this was something viral.

Each contained about 100 calories a serving, and was presented as a refresher, with fruta never appearing on the packaging.

The drinks may be nothing new to those of you who live in Texas or California. The same likely holds true for hardcore foodies. But I can’t recall seeing aqua fresca de frutas before in the mainstream suburbs of the Northeast, even in the Latino delis that have been sprouting up in recent years. All of a sudden, they're as prevalent as pomegranate juice.

The combination of fresh fruit, real juices, a lot of flavor and a sense of healthfulness, coming at a time of intense interest in beverages, could propel frutas very quickly into the restaurant mainstream.

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