Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Please Mr. Postman

I have long said there’s nothing you can’t buy on the Internet. This is what I love about it. When a friend was getting married, and everyone in our office had chipped in to buy her a Kitchen Aid mixer and sausage making attachment, someone speculated about how the friend was going to make sausages: where on earth would she find sausage casings? Testing my theory, I did a quick search and found Synthetic, or natural?

One of the reasons I love that you can buy anything on the Internet is because I do buy all sorts of weird things on the Internet. Beyond Christmas and birthdays—for which I naturally do all of my shopping on the web—I buy all sorts of ingredients and food products online. I don’t mean premade food products from places like Williams-Sonoma, or Fruit of the Month Club offerings from Harry and David. It’s a little stranger than that.

First of all, I mail order eggs. Because I make mayonnaise from scratch, and I don’t want to be afraid to let my children lick the spoon when I make cookies, I used to buy pasteurized eggs at the grocery store. When we moved, I found that they didn’t carry them at any of the grocery stores near us. It is possible to make mayonnaise with egg substitute, which was a suggestion I read in a cookbook, but it really doesn’t taste very good. I found the company that sells the eggs online, and discovered that they would mail order them to me. I pay almost as much in shipping as I do for the eggs, but it’s worth it. I also have to buy five dozen at a time, but since they last pretty much forever, that’s not such an issue.

The first question that most people ask (after “Are you nuts?”) is “Don’t they arrive all broken?” The answer is, once. I had placed two orders with the company, and both had arrived with nary a shell cracked. Then this past Christmas, I realized I was running low, and should order a new box. My word of advice to anyone thinking of buying eggs via mail order is to avoid the holiday season. More than half of the eggs were broken when I opened the box. I emailed their customer service, and they sent me out a new shipment of eggs at no charge (which meant I had seven dozen eggs). While one or two of the second batch were broken, it was certainly not an unreasonable state of affairs. I happen to know from a college professor I once had, who worked in a UPS warehouse during grad school, that the people at UPS treat packages atrociously and it gets worse over the holidays. Evidently they’re hostile and angry because they get paid peanuts, but rather than buying assault rifles, they take out their aggressions on a bunch of innocent corrugated cardboard boxes full of My Little Pony dolls, Matchbox cars, and (in my case) pasteurized eggs.

Over the years I’ve bought one-off oddball things via mail. The King Arthur Flour Company sells all kinds of useful, hard-to-find items in their Baker’s Catalog. One year my husband decided he wanted a Malted Milk Ball cake for his birthday. I had seen the recipe and offered him a choice of several cakes, and he picked that one. The only problem was that the recipe called for malted milk powder, and I couldn’t find that at any of the specialty shops near me. Something sent me to the King Arthur Flour Company website and there, lo and behold, along with things like pretzel salt and cheese powder, was malted milk powder. I ordered it (again, the shipping was outrageous—this is the only drawback to mail order, I’ve found), and it arrived in time for me to make the birthday cake. I did learn a lesson, though: if you’re going to put crushed malted milk balls on top of a cake as a garnish, do so just before it’s served. They’ll melt if they’re scattered over the moist frosting and sit there overnight.

Once upon a time when I believed that Dr. Atkins held the solution to my weight loss problems, I ate bunless hot dogs by the pound (along with bacon and chicken salad). Normally I eat my hot dogs with yellow mustard, but for some reason this just didn’t cut it with the bunless version. Somehow I found champagne mustard. It made my hot dogs wonderful, and I soon went through a whole jar. I don’t remember where I got it, but for some reason I couldn’t get any more at any of the stores near me. In my protein-induced insanity, I was desperate. Enter the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. This place sells every kind of mustard you’ve ever heard of (and about nine thousand kinds you haven’t heard of). Sure enough, my champagne mustard was one of their offerings. I promptly ordered several jars. Although my experience with Atkins was a bust (let’s face it—there is no silver bullet for weight loss), the mustard was a success. I don’t order it on a regular basis anymore, but I have ordered people gifts from the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum.

Then there are things that I’ve often considered buying, but haven’t yet got around to it. The one that I think of most often is Pierce’s Pit Bar-b-que. Pierce’s is a little dive outside of Williamsburg, VA, where my husband went to college. Actually, it’s in a town called Toano, which is just about as charming as its name makes it sound. In order to get there, you drive for about fifteen minutes along an access road that parallels the highway before you come to a yellow and orange building with lots of picnic tables and lots of cars in the parking lot. “What’s this?” you think the first time you see it, “And why are all these people at this dumpy place?” I’d add that you might even be able to say that to the person who brought you there and get your questions answered, because the likelihood that you’re going to find Pierce’s on your own is pretty slim. There are a couple of highway signs directing you to it, but unless you’ve heard that it’s great and you’re dying to try it, you’re going to give up your quest after the first mile or two and just go for the McDonald’s at the interchange.

Now that I no longer live anywhere near Pierce’s, the only way for me to get it is via mail order. And they do take orders. You can get their great bar-b-que by the pound, and you used to be able to buy packages of their squishy rolls, sent to you overnight. If only all the places I loved that I was no longer close to would ship me their food. The only downside is that you can’t get their coleslaw shipped too. Their coleslaw is too sweet on its own, but you need that sugar to cut the heat of the sauce they use. It’s not excessive, but it’s hot enough that it needs a little tempering. In fact, my husband may get Pierce’s for his birthday in a couple of months.

These days I also buy kind of strange food items as gifts. This past Christmas one of my uncles, who also happens to have a taste for oddball food products, almost got Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup as a present. He didn’t because the shipping to get it in time would have cost me too much (I didn’t think to get it for him until pretty late in the game), but he’ll probably get something like that next year. I found a book called “Food Finds” that breaks out by category all kinds of small producers of usual and unusual foods. Whatever kind of jam, beverage, cookie, bread, meat, or vegetable you’re looking for, someone somewhere makes it. You can get things like Nut Goodies shipped to your door (these are a marshmallow, caramel, chocolate and peanut candybar-ish thing sold in the South), you can buy Cherry Wine soda, Cajun flavored potato chips, and frozen grouse. Whatever you crave, it’s all there on the Internet. What a wonderful country this is.

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