The time: 6:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday.
The place: An apartment in downtown Washington.
The scene: Man in boxer shorts and sweat socks, hunched over a laptop.
I just finished shopping for a chef's knife, a jar of roasted garlic-onion jam, a food reference book and a recipe for panna cotta. Thanks to Cooking.com (www.cooking.com), an online retailer of kitchenware and specialty foods, my expedition took a mere 10 minutes, from sign-on to log-off. The designer jam was out of stock, but I checked off a box to have the site e-mail me once the condiment was available. Otherwise, my first taste of online food shopping proved sweet.
There were no lines to wait in, no traffic to tackle. The only thing I missed was the ability to page through that book or sample a dollop of that jam--things I might have done in a real store. That said, for someone who ranks gift-buying and mall-hopping right down there with well-done steak and thick-lipped wine glasses, the ability to browse and buy when and where I want to will make this a very merry Christmas.
Bottom line: Your wish is some retailer's command. Foodies in particular face a blizzard of online temptations, from the predictable (Dean & DeLuca's online store, at www.dean-deluca.com) to the more obscure (such hard-to-find culinary tomes as "Food and Drink in Medieval Poland" can be tracked down at www.foodbooks.com). Thanks to www. peets.com, I can even wake up in Washington to a deep-roasted taste of the Bay Area, courtesy of the venerable Peet's Coffee & Tea in Berkeley, Calif.
It pays to scout around. I found an 8-inch chef's knife from J.A. Henckels for $84.95 (plus $8.95 for shipping) at www.tavolo.com, $83.20 (plus $9.95 shipping) at Cooking.com and on sale at Hecht's--within walking distance of my home--for $84.80. But further clicking revealed that the same knife was available from www.restaurant-store.com, a wholesaler of restaurant-quality goods, for a bargain $69.99; even better, the site promised free shipping for purchases of $75 or more.
You'd think buying directly from the source would be the least expensive route, but that's not always the case. That roasted garlic-onion jam, made by the acclaimed Stonewall Kitchen and available for $6.75 (plus $5.95 for shipping) at www.stonewallkitchen.com, is $6.50 (plus $3.95 for shipping) at Cooking.com.
A few tips: Until you know a site well, stick with name brands or items you recognize; your trust in an online company grows or withers once you see how it delivers. With food gifts, you'll want someone around to greet that order of ice cream or sausage, even if it's packed in dry ice. And just as you should never go to the grocery store when you're hungry, make a list of what you're looking for before you log on--you could waste hours wading through pages of irrelevant merchandise.