Mail-order food is the perfect holiday prescription for homesick natives from just about anywhere. If your friend from Little Rock has moved to Gotham, you can sate her hankering for serious barbecue with one phone call to Armstrong's in Helena, Ark. Or if some hardcore New Yorker finds himself in Cheyenne hoping against hope to savor real lox, make him happy by sending a New York brunch from the quintessential smoked fish emporium, Russ & Daughters. All over the country, purveyors are keeping American food traditions alive--and transplanted professionals happy--by making and shipping the culinary equivalent of handknit sweaters and scarves (table, page 142).
I have had barbecue sent from more than a dozen joints, but I never became a mail-order barbecue devotee until a caller on National Public Radio alerted me to the whole pork shoulder from Armstrong's (also known as Eddie's). The shoulder arrives ready to be picked clean by a horde of 15 barbecue lovers. It has a crunchy exterior and satiny, tender meat inside that tastes like pork confit. I once sent one as a gift to Daniel Boulud, chef-owner of Cafe Boulud and the soon-to-be-opened Daniel in New York. Boulud, who's from the pork-loving French city of Lyons, started attacking it before he put it into the oven to warm (as it's already cooked, it's safe to eat cold). The barbecue doesn't even need the accompanying hot and mild barbecue sauces that often come in sauerkraut jars with Eddie's labels pasted on them. Armstrong's pork ribs, while respectable, are not in the same league as the shoulder.
BREAKFAST PACKAGE. Another Southern tradition is a big breakfast featuring country ham, bacon, sausage, biscuits, and homemade preserves. Although I've never been to the famous Nashville breakfast spot, Loveless Motel, I have duplicated its Southern repast many times thanks to its mail-order breakfast sampler. Classically salty ham, meaty bacon, sausage, and fabulous peach preserves (when they're not oddly smokey) will have a recipient thinking of moving to Nashville to become a songwriter.
If you're not into pork, Russ & Daughters, among the oldest smoked fish stores in New York City, can get your day off to a rousing start. Owner Mark Federman was a lawyer in the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office before becoming the third generation of his family to supply New Yorkers with their cherished lox, bagels, and cream cheese. His New York brunch will feed 10 hungry folks copious amounts of silky smoked salmon, herring, whitefish, and sturgeon. The rich cream cheese is made without gum, unlike many store brands, and the bagels are crusty enough to crunch when you bite into them. Federman even supplies a pound of rugelach for dessert, although serious rugelach aficionados would probably prefer a buttery batch from Margaret Palca's little bakery in a century-old Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn.
What would any brunch be without butter? Jonathan White's Egg Farm Dairy sampler includes butter so rich and good that I have eaten it with a spoon when my wife wasn't looking. It's made with pasteurized raw cream and churned in small batches. Also in the sampler pack is clabber cream, similar to creme fraoche, and a group of White's superb handmade cheeses.
TEA LEAVES. If you're sending something to a coffee or tea lover, consider the gift packages from Greenwich Village's Porto Rico Importing. Long before Starbucks was a glint in founder Howard Schulz's eye, Peter Longo's grandfather was roasting beans for the coffee-loving artists and writers that populated the streets near the store. Longo still roasts his own beans at a newly opened facility in Brooklyn, so you can be confident of finding fresh, high-quality coffee. Longo's coffee sampler features six half-pound bags; his tea sampler includes eight quarter-pound tea selections and an infuser.
Friends with a penchant for sweeter breakfast beverages will appreciate the Hot Chocolate Creme paste from Le Francais Chocolate in Wheeling, Ill. An offshoot of the restaurant in Wheeling of the same name, Le Francais presents its Hot Chocolate Creme in an old-fashioned resealable glass jar. All you need to do is add three spoonfuls to a mug of milk, stir, and stick the concoction in the microwave for 90 seconds. You may never want to resort to Nestle's Quick or even Droste again.
That's not the only gift for chocoholics. Larry Burdick used to supply whimsical chocolate mice, made in his New York tenement apartment, to Bouley, the now-closed four-star restaurant. Burdick has since moved to New Hampshire, but he hasn't lost his sense of humor. His assortments, which include some of those cute mice, come in wood boxes and house some of the most unusual flavored chocolates you can buy. Who wouldn't like to bite into a truffle made with caramelized honey, herbes de Provence, and cream; or a porto, a dark ganache of chopped hazelnut, cinnamon, lavender, and port wine?
Burdick doesn't make dessert sauces, but Fran Bigelow does at Fran's Chocolates, her Seattle shop. Although her regular dark chocolate sauce is sweet for my taste, the coffee in her espresso caramel sauce cuts the sweetness well. Fran's raspberry sauce, made with fresh Northwest raspberries, sugar, and lemon juice, shocks with its intense berry flavor.
Jams and dried fruits are ubiquitous mail-order items, but American Spoon Foods has raised the craft of preserving fruit to an art form. Co-owner Justin Rashid, whose partner is noted chef Larry Forgione, abandoned an acting career in New York to forage for fruit and mushrooms in Michigan's North Country. Their Michiganian sampler is a well-put-together gift box. It comprises "Fruit Perfect" blueberries and cherries (80% fruit), lovely peach and strawberry preserves, crisp dried apples, and chocolate-covered maple creams.
One of America's great food stores, Zingerman's Deli, in Ann Arbor, Mich., has turned out a catalog that's fun to read and order from. Partner Ari Weinzweig is passionate about olive oil. His oil samplers contain some great olive oils, a self-published book, Weinzweig's Guide to Good Olive Oil, and even tasting kits that allow olive oil lovers to put into practice what they learned in the book.
One thing to remember: Mail-order food packages sometimes can arrive in disarray. Frieda's Produce in Los Angeles, for example, which ships exotic fruit, sent me a basket with an overripe melon and other fruits spilling out. But for the most part, these mail-order companies are reliable operations.
So forget the sweaters, the shirts, and the slippers this year. Give the folks on your list real American food. It's a gift that will never be returned because it's too small.