There it is, waiting on your doorstep: the holiday gourmet gift box. While well-intentioned, it tends to be the gift that says, “I’m thinking of you, but I’ve run out of time to do anything more personal.” In the billion-dollar mail-order-food business, companies like Harry & David, the Swiss Colony and Hickory Farms often come to the rescue as the shopping days slip by, offering baskets and boxes filled with wax-coated apples and oranges, shrink-wrapped tubes of summer sausage and multitudinous mini-jars of condiments, all of which can be ordered online in the middle of the night during a moment of panic when you realize you’ve forgotten to send something to that favorite aunt.
In a society ruled by convenience, mail-order food offers an opportunity to send a present that is both practical and extravagant, treating loved ones with special food items they might not get for themselves. It could be something that offers a special taste memory from the past (maybe a lobster roll from Maine as a reminder of a favorite family vacation) or provides a completely new flavor experience (beer jelly for that brewery nerd on your list).
Just over a century ago, a child would have been thrilled to find an orange along with a shiny new penny in his stocking on Christmas morning; back then, an orange was an exotic tropical fruit that tasted of untold adventures in faraway sunshine, a treat beyond imagination. No matter how ordinary such citrus fruit may seem to us now, any Floridian still will wax poetic about the special variety of tangelos found only at their local grove, the same way a New Yorker can pinpoint a bagel’s specific bakery origin after just one bite.
More and more, we yearn to support mom-and-pop enterprises as we search for a connection across the miles to people who are intimately familiar with the food inside that box. Plug into any search engine and you can find basmati rice, huckleberry pies and olive oil that are grown, prepared or processed through some family enterprise. As we become increasingly consumed by wanting to know the story of the food on our plates, sending a gift of food can be far more than simply a convenient click of the mouse. The person who packed the box can tell you how the rainfall affected that harvest or whether someone had to tiptoe away from a bear contentedly slumbering in the huckleberry patch.
That box contains more than just food. It’s a story waiting to unfold. Dig in.
A sampling of boxes:
Arkansas Rice Depot: It turns out that nearly half of all the rice grown in the United States comes from Arkansas, where local growers have been donating crops to the nonprofit Arkansas Rice Depot since 1982 to aid local hunger relief efforts. Ninety-eight percent of the proceeds from the depot’s sales of packaged rice supports programs such as Food for Kids, says gift shop coordinator Rebecca Davis: “The ARD gives a backpack filled with food for evening meals, weekends and even lunch at school, if the parents can’t send lunch money.” Volunteers pack popular gift boxes of signature rice mixes: There’s the Hog Wild package, designed especially for Razorbacks fans, or you can get nostalgic for the 1990s with Presidential Parmesan Rice, based on a recipe from Bill Clinton. Gift boxes start at $25. ricedepot.org
Harvey’s Groves: There are a lot of orange groves in Florida, but Harvey’s has been a fixture in the Central Florida landscape for three generations, dating to 1926, when Jim Harvey’s great-aunt started selling freshly squeezed orange juice for 5 cents a cup at a roadside stand beside the Indian River in Brevard County. These days, Harvey’s is selling some 50,000 gallons a year locally while also sending out thousands of gift boxes filled with a variety of citrus, including Honeybell Tangelos — a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine — and Florida Flame grapefruit. The orange butter and grapefruit-cherry marmalade offer a change of pace for your breakfast toast, and the popular chocolate-dipped coconut patties, the product of a local candymaker, are fresh: Owner Jim Harvey says that “Vinny makes them one day, I pick them up the next, and they go right into the boxes.” Gift boxes start at $27.95. www.harveysgroves.com
Robert Is Here: If a tropical vacation isn’t in the cards this winter, you can explore the world through tropical fruit. Robert Is Here, an iconic fruit stand in South Florida that got its start when then-6-year-old Robert Moehling began selling his family’s produce on the side of the road in 1959, grows and curates a wide variety of local, seasonal produce, including half a dozen types of mango. If you’re ever in Homestead, you’ll want to stop in for Robert’s wildly popular milkshakes, made with fresh tropical fruit; for the next best thing, you can impress your friends by sending such delights as Florida avocados, dragon fruit, sapote and slightly freakish jackfruit. They’ll send out only whatever’s ripe that day, so ordering from Robert Is Here is always an adventure. Prices vary. robertishere.com
Subarashii Kudamono: You don’t have to travel outside the Mid-Atlantic to find perfect Asian pears; the Spira family began transforming Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley into pear-adise (sorry!) after discovering the fruit on a trip to Japan in 1973. Over the course of 30 years, the Spiras’ company, Subarashii Kudamono — which means “wonderful fruit” in Japanese — established orchards where they grow classic varieties of Asian pears and their own cultivars, including SuSan and LilySan, named for children of the family. Each pear is picked by hand and examined before being individually wrapped for shipping; Holly Harter, director of marketing, says: “I call them our Fabergé eggs. It’s a whole experience when you open the box.” Gift boxes start at $29.95. www.wonderfulfruit.com
Texas Hill Country Olive Co.: A scant five years after planting their first olive trees on 15 acres in Dripping Springs, Texas, the Gambini family is producing award-winning organic olive oil, including Sola Stella, which has won gold medals this year in international competitions in New York and Los Angeles. Cara Gambini says her father, John Gambini, first dreamed of opening a vineyard as a way to reflect the family’s Italian heritage in the Lone Star State. But there were already 160 wineries, so he became intrigued when he heard about some Texas farmers who were starting to plant olive trees. “We thought it would be much more fun to be pioneers in a new industry,” she says. “It’s been a labor of love ever since.” Olive oil ranges in price from $18 to 33. texashillcountryoliveco.com
The Huckleberry Patch: If you’re longing for a taste of the wild, you can’t go wrong with huckleberries, which have never been successfully cultivated and so must be collected in the wild — right alongside the local grizzly bears, who love ’em, too. Don’t dare compare them to wild blueberries if you want to avoid an argument, and, frankly, they do taste different. Located in Hungry Horse, Mont., just nine miles from Glacier National Park, the Huckleberry Patch has since 1949 been the headquarters for all things huckleberry, most notably Erna Fortin’s huckleberry pie, oozing with luscious and slightly tart huckleberries generously packed into a pretty pie crust. $25 for the pie, and there is a wide variety of other huckleberry products. huckleberrypatch.com
Hartke is a Washington-based food writer and editor.