It was Christmas a few years back and my friend Gayle, a lifelong Texan, was spending the holidays in New Jersey, where she and her husband had moved for his new job. “We were homesick, and my brother, who was always the best gift giver, shipped us a big box of Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, from Llano, Texas. When it arrived, I sat in the middle of the kitchen floor and bawled,” she told me.
I can understand. The taste and smell of the food you grew up eating, or the special treat that brings back memories of a place or time you hold dear, can be a balm for the lonely heart. Just ask my husband, who received a surprise gift last December of his favorite pastrami sandwich fixings from Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City. Our son wanted to cheer him up since we wouldn’t be seeing any family or friends during the holidays, thanks to the lockdown.
The gift of a favorite food from a home state or region can help the holiday or homesick blues. It’s also a great way of making the merrymaking of December extra special — and helping lighten the cooking load.
Whether it’s an iconic Maine lobster roll, Virginia Shenandoah Valley apple cake, New York bagels or Montana huckleberry pie, it’s become a whole lot easier to order regional foods online and have them shipped on ice to your front door.
Online food shipping has become especially popular with older adults, says Jesse Ness, founder of the online company Walleye Direct (walleyedirect.com). His site sells hard-to-find freshwater fish like walleye, bluegill and perch to, as he puts it, “snowbirds and transplants from the Great Lakes region and Canada.”
He explains how with the rise of the pandemic and more online shopping, people began to realize what a huge selection was available to them – including foods of their youth.
“Some hadn’t had walleye in 30 years and they said it brought tears to their eyes,” Ness says.
My friend Iris, who returns to Michigan each summer to fill up on the fish she ate as a child, told me the walleye she ordered when she got back home to Maryland gave her the “biggest smile and memories of fishing with my father.”
The boom in national food ordering also has been a lifeline for many small local businesses, providing them with a larger pool of customers during the recent tough economic times. “Online shipping is what kept us alive through the pandemic,” says Brian Noyes, owner of Red Truck Bakery (https://redtruckbakery.goldbelly.com) in northern Virginia’s farm country. The bakery is known for its fruit pies and homey cakes, like a seasonal Shenandoah apple cake, and in 2021 was named one of “The South’s Best Bakeries” by Southern Living magazine.
When the lockdown began in March 2020, Noyes had to close the retail and dining spaces at the bakery’s two locations in the small towns of Marshall and Warrenton.
A drive-up window for local customers helped somewhat, “but what really saved us was the online shipping through our website,” Noyes recalls. “Even in the usually slow days of August, those orders rivaled the numbers we usually saw in the week before Christmas, our busiest shipping season.”
Victoria Lai, who opened Ice Cream Jubilee (icecreamjubilee.com) in Washington, D.C., seven years ago, also wondered if her shop — known for its handmade ice cream in creative flavors like Thai iced tea and banana bourbon caramel — would survive the lockdown. She began offering local delivery of pints, which helped, but “shipping nationally allowed us to connect with a lot more people” who ordered specialties like the shop’s ice cream sandwich kits and seasonal flavors of ice cream pies.
For Elle’s Belles bakery (ellesbelles.com) in Bozeman, Montana, the pandemic meant a slow-down in orders for custom wedding cakes, as couples had to delay big weddings. But owner Elle Fine said she had joined the online food marketplace Goldbelly in 2013 to help the bakery ship its signature frosted daisy sugar cookies, an Oprah favorite, and Montana huckleberry cheesecake to customers in other states. When the lockdown hit, those national orders kept the bakery staff busy.
As it turns out, Goldbelly (goldbelly.com) helped hundreds of local restaurants and food shops nationwide during the pandemic. The e-commerce platform partners with some 850 food purveyors and restaurants to help them sell their food nationally. About 400 of those businesses have joined Goldbelly since the pandemic began.
Goldbelly helps eateries with the logistics of packing and overnight shipping, providing insulated boxes and cold packs, as well as offering its customers a simple way to order and track shipments on the company’s well-organized website. For this, Goldbelly charges businesses a fee, which leads to premium delivery prices. For example, a two-pack of New York’s storied Di Fara Neapolitan pizza, is $89. But when only your beloved hometown pizza or favorite barbecue will do, then customers seem willing to pay more.
With the holidays coming, regional food favorites are a fun addition to the season’s get-togethers. In addition to the places mentioned above, here are some other suggestions for treating yourself or your family and friends:
- Having some friends over for cheese and wine? Cowgirl Creamery (cowgirlcreamery.com) in Petaluma, California, has been turning out award-winning cheeses for 30 years, and now ships overnight via FedEx for delivery on Tuesdays or Thursdays. Popular holiday choices include the four-cheese and crackers Deluxe selection or the Starter Course with four cheeses, crackers, prosciutto and other goodies, offered on its Goldbelly page.
- If a bagel brunch is part of your plans, the New York Brunch from Russ & Daughters (russanddaughters.com), which has been selling bagels and lox since 1914, makes it easy: The package includes bagels, Nova lox, cream cheese, chocolate babka and a pound of private blend coffee.