BUYING GIFTS for people who live at some distance has two built-in disadvantages: Not only do you have to allow time for the gifts to reach them, but you also rarely have a clear sense of what they need or want. Add to this the fact that time is scarcer at this time of year than any other (why is that?) and you've got problems. Fortunately -- especially for those of us who are catalog junkies -- it is now possible to do our holiday shopping in the relative peace of our homes, where we can leaf through the pages, now laughing, now yearning, occasionally finding just what Uncle Lloyd will love to munch on while he's milking the cows (except now his cows are automated).
The nicest thing about catalog shopping, besides the opportunity for leisurely covetousness, is that you don't experience the anxiety of having a sales person standing nearby waiting for you to purchase something, or making you feel guilty if half an hour of looking produces not a nickle's worth of commerce. Besides, mail-order shopping is one way to avoid paying taxes, once you figure out the system: If the package is mailed to a state where the firm doesn't have an outlet, you don't have to pay sales tax; where you are when you buy the package is not the key -- it's where the package is being sent in relation to the store.
The one disadvantage of shopping by mail -- or having a store mail your packages, which sometimes amounts to the same thing -- is that the package may seem a little more impersonal than if you had wrapped it yourself and had little Megan crayon "I love Grandma" all over it. Counter this by sending along little gift cards to be enclosed with each gift; it's not perfect, but it beats failing to send anything at all because you've run out time. Or shop early, have everything sent to you, and let Megan color all over the packages before you reship them.
Food and kitchen catalogs are among the most mouth-watering of the mail-order offerings, which is convenient, because many of the people I find difficult to shop for either love to cook or love to eat or both.
The advantage of using local stores that have a solid mail-order business is that you can look the merchandise over before you buy it -- and then let them do all the wrapping and sending. And if you prefer shopping from their catalog, you can place your order with a local call.
If you aren't on Kitchen Bazaar's (KB) mailing list, you'll want to give them a buzz, because their new Christmas catalog is out and full of good ideas, including some you may want to get for yourself.(Generally the catalog is $1; mention this article and they'll send it for free: Kitchen Bazaar, Mail Order Division, 4455 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20008 (202) 363-4625.
Memories of a delicious grilled ham and Gruyere sandwhich in Monte Carlo make KB's Croque Monsieur toasting iron tempting at its sale price of $12.99 for a single iron and $19.99 for a double, for stove-top grilling. (Postage and handling are extra on most items mentioned in this article.) Equally evocative is (the imported pastry slab of white Carrara marble, on sale for $29.99, or) the 4-quart English trifle bowl, like a giant parfait glass, for $11.50. For the elegant someone on your has everything list, KB has a 24-carat gold-plated French egg poacher that come gift boxed for only $15.
China Closet (Mail orders: 6808 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, Md. 20015, (301) 656-0203) has many of the same items as Kitchen Bazaar (though not so sumptuous a catalog), also handles mail orders, and is featuring an item this Christmas I hope somebody sends somebody I know so I can see if it works: a professional egg peeler ($8.59 plus postage), which from the picture looks like a miniature concertina on a plastic plant stand.
Those of us who have drooled over the Williams-Sonoma catalog for years were thrilled to learn that this California dream firm had set up a shop in the Mazza Galleire, stocking everything in the catalog and then some. (5300 Wisconsin Ave., D.C. 200159 244-4800.) If you don't want to temp fate by seeing their wares in the flesh, ask for their catalog. If cousin Judy has given her Cuisinart to the Salvation Army in a revolt against automation (and puree), consider sending her their stainless steel mandolin $122, plus postage), which will restore her sense of control over potatoes and other vegetables, which she can shred, julienne, matchstick or slice just the way professional chefs do in kitchens all over Europe. Made to last a lifetime (and at that price, what wouldn't?)
Professional chocolate bakers will be happy to learn that Williams-Sonoma is stocking Callebaut baking chocolate $47.50 an 11-pound bar). Those who prefer their chocolate to pass from the box directly across their lips may prefer the bourbon creams Georgetown Coffee Tea and Spice (1328 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 338-3801) swear even the Swiss will like $6.5 ounces, $3.95; 13 ounces, $5.95, plus $1 postage). But for friends who like to play with their food, you may want to consider this shop's quaint little chocolate chess set ($59.99 plus $4 postage), board and chessmen both made of solid milk chocolate (brown and white). Just think what you can do to your opponent when his bishop is edible!
But enough of the offbeat. Maybe the people on your gift list just like first-rate food and either can't afford it or aren't near any. Ask your favorite specialty shop if they'll mail gift packages; many stores do, and of those that don't do so regularly, many will make an exception for regular customers.
The German Deli (814 11th St. NW, 347-5732) receives orders once a year at this time from an ex-customer who has moved to Palo Alto, Calif., and insists he can't find anything German as fresh on the West Coast. Send Uncle Fritz a salami!
You never can tell who has turned vegetarian since last Christmas, so I have my eye on La Cheeserie (419 S. Washington, Alexandria, Va. 22314 548-6560.) Either in the store or on the phone, they'll arrange to put together a basket of cheeses (say, Supreme Brie, Caprice des Dieux, and Danish Portella), a small box of Bremen crackers, and an elegant little card -- at regular prices, plus postage and $1 for packing. Their liquor store can also arrange for out-of-state delivery of wine through New York City's Tele-wine service. We thought Tele-wine was expensive, but La Cheeserie tells us the charge is whatever their store price is for a bottle of wine or champagne, plus $5 for delivery. (Naturally their wine isn't sent interstate, which is illegal; rather, Tele-wine calls the liquor store nearest the delivery address and hopes that they have what you want sent.)
One of the biggest problems I have at Christmas is finding just the right little thing to give someone I want to remember but don't want to embarass with a major present. One solution to that problem is a packet of "bouquet garni" bags. Toss one s one of these little "Chefs Delight" bags into a soup or sauce and fish it out again when you're ready to serve. At $3 postpaid for two packets of 25 bags each, this makes a pleasant little stocking stuffer for the lady who used to live next door 15 years ago (Greene Herb Gardens, Greene, R.I. 02827).
For the jelly and jam friends on my list, this year I can't resist trying a little North Carolina mountain shop that operates out of the owner's kitchen, using wild berries gathered by local resident. The Condiment Shop (Box 666, Highlands, N.C. 28741, (704) 526-2206) packages gift boxes of 6 or 12 jars of jams or jellies, at prices ranging from $1.75 to $3.20 a jar, in flavors too exotic not to investigate: scuppernong, wild huckleberry, gooseberry, wild black raspberry, wild 'possum grape, wild muscadine, hot pepper, and corn cob (which the owner tells us taste like mild apple jelly). Also available: Chuteys, pickles, relishes, conserves (fig and rhubarb), and such miscellaneous items as sourwood honey and chestnut-rum ice cream sauce. It this woman's products are half as good as they sound, breakfast toast will never be the same again.
Without any question, the two most comprehensive mail-order catalogues to cross my desk this year were those of Cross Imports (210 Hanover Street, Boston, Mass. 021138 (617) 523-2399 -- catalog $1) and Maid of Scandinavia (3244 Raliegh Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55416, 612/927-7996 -- catalog $1.) Both firms carry the most extraordinary selection of cookie cutters I've ever seen, at prices of 39 and 35 and up, respectively. Cross Imports specializes particularly in cookware for the French and Italian cook. Not only do they stock an electric pizzelle maker -- $29.95 plus postage), as well as more conventional utensils for making those delicious wafer-thin waffle cookies so popular with Italian children, they also carry a "Chitarra" -- $18.95 plus postage), a wonderful gadget that looks like a zither, with two sets of steel wires that produce those flat-sided spaghetti for the dish "spaghetti alla chitarra."
Maid of Scandinavia's 224-page catalogue is jam-packed with untensils and supplies for baking, cake decorating, and candy making. If they don't sell it, I doubt it's made -- if you like baking, you must see this catalog. On a single page they have cake molds shaped like a jewel, a mountain, a gingerbread boy, a Santa, a heart, a chicken, a bowling pin, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck. There are at least 15 pages of cake pans, plus a special section for wedding cakes and the things that go under them (tiers) and on them (brides and grooms, etc.) All this, plus a toll-free number for ordering: 1-800-328-6722.
I have two different sets of friends who grow their own herbs and vegetables but have never strayed much beyond the posibilities in the wonderful but limited Burpee seed catalog. My Christmas present to them this year is going to be a superb collection of seed catalogues, and a gift certificate for the seeds and bulbs of their choice. Of the 30-odd seed catalogs I've examined, I've found the following particularly enticing as a source of interesting food plants you're not likely to find with ease:
Nichols Garden Nursery (1190 North Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 92321, (503) 928-9280), whose free 70-page catalog lists not only the standard herbs and vegetables but also such specialties as shallots, French sorrel, wormwood elephant garlic and a saffron crocus bulb (shipped in late July or early August) that allows you to grow your own saffron. The Banana Tree (715 Northampton St., Easton, Pa. 18042, catalog 25), purveyor of such exotic plants as bananas, macadamia, and miracle fruit (whose seeds, when eaten, make everything you eat for two hours taste sweet, but which mature only under greenhouse conditions, as most of his plants do), also carries an interesting line of 16 Chinese vegetables, at 60 a packet (plus postage), some we've yearned to grow, some we've never even heard of. (Greenhouse not necessary for these.)
The three-page free price list sent us by Kitazawa Seed Company (356 W. Taylor St., San Jose, Calif. 95110) lists both Chinese and Japanese vegetable seeds, priced at $2 a packet, postpaid.
Last but not least, Applewood Seed Company's appealing catalog (P.o. Box 4000, Golden, Colo. 80401) contains a positively fantasy-arousing list of wildflower seeds. For $1 you can buy 500 edelweiss seeds and plant your back yard; for $33 you can buy 1 oz. (260,000 seeds) and transform a meadow; and for $262 you can buy a pound, and redo a mountain. To show you they are thinking of city people, too, Applewood lists vegetables seeds for pots and small spaces, at 30 a packet and up.