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Photograph by Mike Connor

Velvet Underground: Annie's dips are a sublimely transformational experience.

Annie Get Your Dip

In which our intrepid food columnist discovers the dip that rocks the spot

By Steve Billings

No, she didn't pay me to write the article. Honest. I don't even know if there is a real woman behind my current snack fetish, so Annie--if you're out there grinding nuts in a Santa Cruz kitchen for your Cashew, Sesame and Pimento Dip--I hope you're listening because this one's about you and your dip that rocks the spot.

When I go to the grocery store I take risks, I try new things. As expected, sometimes I get satisfying returns, from others a puckered palate. My Comstock Lode moment came along one day while mining the cooler case at a health food store and it panned out initially as a rather innocuous 12-ounce container topped with a red and white label, containing an odd peachy-colored substance that provided more questions than answers.

Back at the ranch I busted open a bag of salted organic yellow corn chips (a solid delivery system) and peeled back the 12-ounce container's plastic lid to reveal a strangely uniform, slick surface littered with pin-sized holes. Doubt and cumulo-nimbus confusion filled in quickly, building a cold front that threatened the hoped-for feeding forecast.

I pawed the sheeny top like a quizzical kitty, gingerly testing surface tensions, in an attempt to wrap my senses around this, well, how do you say in English, food product. I looked back at the homey, text-heavy lid and perused the ingredients for calming effects; Water, Cashews, Canola Oil, Pimentos, Sesame Seeds, Brewer's Yeast, Lemon Juice, Sea Salt, Agar and Spices (which, by the way, for you folks in labeling, is not actually an ingredient, but a category of ingredients within which particular distinctions should be made).

I reminded myself that these things are my friends and tried to move forward, but the last and only time I had used agar it wasn't for eating, it was the jellied medium we used to prepare petri dishes to grow cultures in 10th-grade biology. Also of note was that my teacher was a large, sweaty, moustached man who frittered continuously with a failing comb-over while dishing reprimands in an exasperated high-pitched voice. These are not idyllic associations conducive to new sensory exploration. But I braved it, broke the surface and delivered myself a transformational bite.

Annie's asks you to take a leap of faith, to look past looks and trust your taste and the amazing interpretive powers of your mouth. The person who remembers there are no lights on inside their mouth is ready to indulge. I can't explain what happened but I was instantly hooked. All right, I'll try.

The crisp, salty corn chip married perfectly with the cool, velvety spread, providing opposing textural counterpoints, crunch and anti-crunch. Still, the exact flavors are difficult to describe. The dip is both nutty and cheesy (though there is no dairy), soft like slowly cooked scrambled eggs, or ricotta's pigmented second cousin finely blended. I could see it working well as a filling for canneloni, providing a peculiar magic in vegetarian lasagna or even complementing chunks of grilled chicken and diced scallions tossed together in a cool summery salad.

Regardless of how it is used, the Annie's experience is truly protean. It is everything and nothing, part food and part science experiment. It is also the kind of snack that can disappear without asking questions even before you've had three sips of your Tecate and lime. This is Annie's pimento paradox: it's good without you really knowing why you enjoy it. Don't ask questions. Just close your mouth.

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From the March 30-April 6, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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