NEW YORK – This year's summer eats might easily conjure up nostalgic images in a Norman Rockwell (search ) painting.
From frozen root beer floats and old-fashioned ice cream to gourmet hotdogs and burgers, classic Americana treats with flavorful twists are gracing picnics, ballgames and trips to the beach.
Foodie Barb Stuckey of Mattson & Co., a product innovation firm for the food and beverage industries, said the trend of gourmet-ifying junk food is hot.
"You're seeing the 'affordable premium upgrades' in all categories, from hotdogs to snack chips to ice cream to coffee," said Stuckey, Mattson's vice president of marketing.
That's why offerings like organic hotdogs and homemade fixings — served up at places like Sparky's American Food (search ) in Brooklyn, N.Y., — are so popular.
Founded by ex-dot-commer Brian Benavidez, Sparky's (named after his dog) uses farm-raised meat from Niman Ranch in California (or soy for veggie dogs and burgers) and makes its own spicy mustard, relish, ketchup and chili. Even the buns are baked fresh each day and the fries are cut from organically grown potatoes.
"It's five-star quality with food normally associated with cheap, grubby and gross," said Benavidez. "I want to turn hotdogs on their head."
The result is a delectable, spicier, healthier-tasting dog.
"What consumers are clamoring for are more flavors, bolder flavors and more intriguing flavors," said Stuckey. "You see that everywhere."
So this summer it's not just Sprite but tropical "Sprite Remix;" not just potato chips but guacamole-flavored El Sabroso and Frito Lay chips; not just ready-to-eat tuna but lemon-pepper and hickory-smoked Starkist Tuna Creations.
Old-time, childhood flavors like homemade ice cream or a refreshing root beer float are also big this summer.
Cold Stone Creamery, a chain that makes old-style ice cream, has stores in 36 states and just added a new one on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
And J & J Snack Foods has taken frozen Barq's root beer, swirled it with vanilla ice cream and put it in cup and push-up pop forms for a classically summery treat.
"Everyone loves a root beer float," said Stacey Inglis-Baron, marketing manager of food service for J & J. "This is kind of an old-fashioned favorite in modern-day packaging. It's perfect for summer."
Likewise, Coca-Cola (which makes Barq's) has a drink version called Barq's Floatz: an excessively sweet concoction reminiscent of cream soda.
Products that tie in with blockbuster movies have also been showing up on shelves. To coincide with Friday's release of The Hulk (search), Hershey Foods (search) released limited edition giant-size green chocolate syrup, Twizzlers and gumballs.
And in honor of another screen hit, Coke put out a green Matrix Reloaded Powerade. But these treats will be gone before the movies even hit video stores.
"These are things that will pop up seasonally and disappear," Stuckey said.
Another current summer trend that's growing in popularity — especially for its convenience — is screw-top wine. Wine snobs might turn up their noses at the beverage, but vineyards in Australia, New Zealand and Oregon are all among those bottling without cork.
Oregon's WillaKenzie Estate has been producing screw-top wines since 2001, with 15 percent of its Pinot Gris (search), Pinot Noir (search) and Pinot Blanc (search) bottled that way. The 2001 Pinot Noir is dry, light and a little thin, but fine for a picnic. The 2002 Pinot Gris has the fruity, weak taste of cheap wine, which won't convince connoisseurs of the palatability of twist-caps over corks.
Still, the phenomenon does have its advantages.
Other than the current cork shortage — Portugal is the only place in the world where the trees grow — WillaKenzie General Manager Michael Osborn said screw-tops solve the problem of TCA, a chemical disease that gets into cork and can affect taste, and screw-tops are more user-friendly.
"It eliminates the pretension that having a cork presents, which has plagued the wine industry," said Osborn. "There should be nothing pretentious about drinking wine. It's for food and friends, not just for snobs anymore."
So those wanting to define culinary trends this season should remember: Summer 2003 is about remaking the classic foods and drinks Americans have been drawn to for decades.
"People are looking for familiar foods with a new twist," Stuckey said. "Sometimes contemporizing a classic is a bigger idea than creating something from scratch."