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After Hours: Food is the Anytime Gift - Gifts That Just Keep on Giving

By Kathy Biehl, Published on October 27, 2003

Events

This Halloween, instead of dressing up, cranking up the sound effects
recordings and handing out candy bars to kids brave enough to approach my door, I'm divulging hard-learned practical tips on a self-employment panel at the Association of Food Journalists conference in Boston. If you're thinking of doing consulting, starting a business, or looking for ways to earn some extra income and would like to receive announcements of my self-employment tele-seminars, send e-mail to me and I'll put you on the list. The next phone seminar is Sunday, November 16 at 5 PM EST.

The Sixth Annual Chocolate Show runs November 13-16 at the Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th St., NYC. The aroma alone is reason enough to shell out the admission ($21.50, or, for the truly addicted, $51.50 for a three-day pass), but there's plenty for other senses, too. Ogle fashions made out of honest-to-goodness chocolate. Marvel as pastry chefs create tantalizing desserts before your very eyes. Accept and devour samples from world-class (and generally world-famous) chocolatiers. Browse tables and tables of...books. Good luck resisting the impulse to reach for your wallet. A lot.

New Product Alert

Barbara's Bakery has launched a breakfast cereal that puts a couple of novel twists on puffed rice. Organic Wild Puffs take their pleasing, snack worthy sweetness from dehydrated cane juice. This sweetener does not leave the cloying aftertaste of mainstream sugar-shellacked cereals, but that hardly means it's wimpy. The cereal, which debuted at the beginning of October, has a surprisingly powerful presence on the tongue. If you're trying to wean someone in your household off super-sugared cereals, Barbara's Organic Wild Puffs is unlikely to get an argument (unless someone starts hogging the box). And each box provides a serving of civic as well as nutritional virtue. Barbara's Bakery is donating five percent of net profits from Organic Wild Puffs each year to the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which is currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Food is the Anytime Gift

Gift-giving will soon be on our collective minds, but the issue is hardly confined to the coming season. It pops up throughout the year in all manner of circumstances, business as well as personal. No matter what the occasion or cause, food is one choice that is usually welcome and....tasteful. (I'm sorry; I had to say it.) This month and next, After Hours will catalog a spectrum of goodies for your consideration. The suggestions should spur your holiday thinking, to be sure. They will also serve you well when you're looking for a gift for a birthday, graduation, house-warming, dinner party or weekend host/hostess, you need to say thank you, or you want to treat a friend, colleague or helpful office/business associate to something memorable.

Part I: Gifts That Keep On Giving
Food of the Month Clubs

You can prolong holiday cheer by playing Santa with food of the month clubs. They exist for every imaginable product and some that strain credulity. (Ummmmm.....pizza?). Here are some worthy contenders for your gift list. A few of the recommendations have prices that may be in the realm of wishful thinking for some readers. Those companies generally also make their products available in gift samplers or packs that require a significantly lower investment. I have pointed out in most instances when this is the case.

Old Faithful

The food of the month craze began when Harry & David started the Fruit-of-the-Month Club in 1938. It hit the pulse from the start, raking in 87,000 orders in the first year. More than 60 years later, the club has evolved into a wide-ranging family, with a myriad of size, product combination, and price plans. All feature fruit of a quality and varieties that are generally available only at select specialty stores. For diversity, choose Club Medley, which delivers seasonal assortments of different fruits (such as peaches and nectarines in August) or of varieties of one fruit (such as three types of pears this December). Offering only a pound or two of goodies a month, the Light Size Club Medley targets individuals, couples, and others interested in smaller amounts. Poundage and prices vary according to produce type. One month costs at least $26.65 for the Medley and $19.98 for the Light Size. Plans are available for three, five, eight and twelve months.

Coffee Break

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (800/223-6768) offers a number of pleasant ways to wake up and smell the coffee. Its Coffee and Treats plan pairs one bag of coffee (10 or 12 ounces, depending on the type) with a complementary sweet treat - such as Spicy Eggnog Coffee and cranberry sugar cookies in November, Vermont Country Blend and maple syrup in March, Breakfast Blend and strawberry jam in June. The Flavor Tour showcases Green Mountain's flavored roasts, which include Crème Brulée, Organic Viennese Cinnamon, and English Toffee Cream.

The Exotic Origins Tour explores far-flung estates and regions with distinctive beans and growing conditions. Some of the tour stops have familiar names (Kona Mountain Estate in Hawaii and Mocha Java); others are less widely known, such as Guatemalan Finca Dos Marias, whose owners have preserved a cloud forest on the farm as a rare bird habitat. Each tour shipment contains two bags of coffee (again, 10 or 12 ounces each). (800-827-6836).

All the coffees are available whole bean or ground, with five grind preferences, running from autodrip to Turkish. Each tour is available for six or 12 months, and the cost is charged to a credit card in monthly allotments. Subscriptions are $69.95 ($11.95 a month) and $134.95 ($11.24 a month) for the Coffee and Treats plan. The Flavor Tour goes for $94.95 ($15.82 a month) and $179.95 ($14.98 a month), while the Exotic Origins costs $99.95 ($16.64 a month) and $189.95 ($15.83 a month). Shipping is an additional $5.95 a month.

Chips Ahoy!

Behind the avatar of a truck-driving ex-Merchant Marine, Anchor O'Reilly's Chip-of-the-Month Club (800/313-2332) is a celebration of regional flavors and small-scale production, in the unlikely form of potato chips. They arrive in six medium-sized (five to six ounce) bags at a time, and they come from three different manufacturers without extensive national distribution, each of whom is represented by one bag of plain and one of flavored chips. The cookers are of the calibre of (and often include) Zapp's, Poore Brothers, and Dirty, and kettle-cooking, all-natural ingredients, and superior crunchiness are the norm. This club gets bonus points for uncommonly eye-catching graphics, which mimic road signs, stamps, and steamer trunk labels.

The Chip-of-the-Month Club costs $16.95 (plus $6.38 shipping and handling) a month, with a three month minimum. A one-month chip sampler is also available for $27.50. Unlike the other clubs featured in this month's column, Anchor O'Reilly's does not accept single-item orders. If you want more of a selection, contact the manufacturer directly.

Season's Feedings

Diamond Organics' Sampler of the Month ships a cornucopia of exquisite fruits, vegetables, herbs, and sometimes nuts. Selections spotlight what's then in season -- greens and salad trimmings in June, a squash assortment come November. A seasonal focus also guides the Diamond Dinner Club, which delivers the makings of an organic, vegetarian meal for four (or more; portions are enormous). Recipes are included, as are produce (which is pristine) and most of the necessary groceries. Sweeteners, oils, vinegars, seasonings, and labor are up to the recipient. Many of the months have an ethnic bent (Middle Eastern, Italian, Greek, Japanese). The sampler and the dinner club have no monthly minimum. The sampler costs $54 for one month, overnight Fed Ex shipping included, the dinner club is two dollars more, and there are price breaks at three, six, and twelve month subscription levels. 888/674-2642.

Howl Fire

Set your favorite chile-heads afire with one of Coyote Moon's hot sauce of the month clubs. Coyote Moon, helmed by cookbook author Margo Ziemer, scouts out high quality "microbrewed" hot sauces, primarily from small companies with limited distribution. The generally mild Cook's Club ($11 per month), which targets people who uses the sauces for cooking, supplies one bottle (about eight ounces) and recipes per shipment. For those who know no pain, the Habanero Club ($13 a month) sends one super hot sauce and snack. The first shipment of the Cook's Club contains the company's own Full Moon Fever, a chipotle-habanero blend that packs a lot of roasted flavor in with the heat. Prices include shipping. 412/370-4023.

Noodlin' Around

Flying Noodle's Pasta Club (888/566-0599) believes in great meals, fast. Each shipment provides two pairs of noodles and sauces, along with recipes that call for only a few additions (such as bacon, peas, cream) and simple steps to yield two main courses for a family of five, with leftovers. (For two people, the spread works out to eight to 10 meals.) The products are equally split between Italian and domestic sources and include Flying Noodle's private label items (the vodka sauce is wonderfully delicate, but add garlic to it; the company leaves it out in deference to customer sensitivity). It's not uncommon to encounter a restaurant specialty, such as the trademark full-bodied marinara from the St. Louis restaurant Bartolino's. The Pasta Club has no minimum subscription requirement and costs $25 a month, plus $4.50 shipping. Pay as you go or in advance; there are no price breaks for multiple months or pre-payment.

Crates O'Ketchup

KetchupWorld's Ketch of the Month Club (866/KETCHUP) explores the surprisingly diverse horizons of artisanal ketchup. The ketchups fall into six categories (hot and spicy, international, kosher, organic, sugarless, and rich and luscious). The products range from small American labels with a penchant for roasted garlic or peppers to British-issue Heinz (which has a distinctively different taste than ours), German curry ketchups, and one-of-a-kind-ers like tomato-free banana ketchup from St. Lucia. A three-pack subscription is available on a quarterly ($125), six-month ($175), or annual ($295) basis. There is also a smaller quarterly club (four shipments of two bottles for $75) and a larger annual club (monthly four-pack shipments for $395). Prices include shipping. For subscriptions under one year, customers may mark their category preferences, or leave the selections up to the choice of (who else?) Ketchupman. And if ketchup by the month strikes you as too much of a good thing, Ketchup World offers three- and four-bottle gift crates ($19.95 and $22.95, respectively.)

Not Just for Cookie Monsters

Looking to bring a smile to someone away from home? Aunt Alice's Bakery (888/505-0155) sends out Southern comfort in the form of a dozen homestyle cookies nestled in seasonal packaging. The cookies are made on the day of shipment, without chemicals or preservatives, and use recipes from the family of owner Judith Reiter (whose grandmother was the business's namesake). The Alabama bakery's monthly selections range from white chocolate macadamia nut to flavorful sugar cookies with holiday decorations and shapes to the moistest oatmeal raisin I've encountered. Fancy schmancy they aren't; think box from Grandma, only tasting much, much better. Subscriptions are available for four ($49.95), six ($69.95), or twelve months ($129.95); shipping is extra and costs $12, $20, and $40, respectively.

Get Cheesed

The Mozzarella Company's Cheese of the Month Club (800/798-2954) spotlights best-sellers from its award-winning line of homemade specialty cheeses, which have taken top honors from the American Cheese Society for 12 of the last 17 years. The club's selections reflect the international scope of owner Paula Lambert's training -- she learned cheesemaking while living in Italy and also studied in Greece and Mexico -- as well as the company's Texas base. Each month brings one to two pounds of a featured cheese, which might be a firm, aged goat's cheese (or a soft, fresh one), Mexican-style Queso Fresco, a pecan praline marscapone torta, or a fresh batch of the company's namesake. Storage advice, recipes, and serving suggestions accompany each shipment. A twelve-month subscription costs $425, while a six-month is $250 and offers the option of delivery every other month. Cheese gifts are also available at significantly lower prices. The $40 How Sweet It Is Sampler delivers a pound of pecan praline marscapone torta and a box of ginger snaps. For five dollars more, the Texas Sampler supplies a pound each of Texas basil caciotta, ancho chile caciotta, and smoked scarmorza, which is a mild mozzarella that has been hung over smoldering shells from the state tree, pecan. Prices include shipping (generally, second-day air, next-day
delivery in summer).