When it comes to a gift that embodies the warmth and sharing of the holidays, food wins every time. This week, millions of boxes of treats are jetting across the country, spreading cheer and calories. We asked the denizens of NPR's science desk what food they're hoping to find on their doorsteps this week. Here are their picks, from traditional to outré.
Oranges are traditional for many Christmas stockings, but it doesn't take elves to make top-tier fruit a treat. NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner relishes the softball-sized navel oranges her mother sends her from Hale Groves in Vero Beach, Fla., every year. "Mmmm," Julie says. "I have one in my bag now."
Mothers often know best. This year my mom sent Cougar Gold cheddar cheese from the student-run creamery Washington State University. It came with a personal touch, a stamp that read: "Made by Matt April 2, 2010." The brochure says the cheese will last indefinitely in its cheerful striped can, with a record of 30 years. But this crumbly, tangy cheddar will be history long before that.
Cheese might satisfy me, but others may pine for fine California produce. Fortunately, contributing editor Deborah Franklin has just the answer: artichokes from Pezzini Farms, in her home state of California. "This place has the best artichokes in Castro Valley," she says.
If artichokes and cheese seem too bland, consider a box of spices from Penzey's. The mom-and-pop operation in Wauwatosa, Wis., has grown into a nationwide chain. But the spices remain first-rate, with unusual options like the "Ethnic Milwaukee" box for seasoning meat and fish.
And while we're on sweets, Christmas calls for a step up from supermarket chocolate. Christmas in our house wouldn't be quite as sweet without toffee from Enstrom in Grand Junction, Colo. The box is small, but the contents are powerful: a sublime contrast of buttery, crunchy slabs of toffee coated in soft chocolate. Should they be out of the dark-chocolate variety, a totally acceptable alternative would be the caramels and other sweets made by Trappistine nuns in Dubuque, Iowa.
There was some debate on the desk as to whether Omaha Steaks still reigns as the king of mail-order meats. If you're ready to range farther afield, high-protein possibilities include the dry-aged steaks from Lobel's in New York, applewood-smoked bacon from Nueske's in Wittenberg, Wis., or frozen wild salmon filets and smoked scallops from SeaBear in Anacortes, Wash.
Delicious as those gifts are, they might not blow away hard-to-please family members. So perhaps try the life-size edible gummy brain from Zombie Trading Co. These gluten-free brains only come in pink fruity bubblegum flavor, but it's hard to imagine that a recipient will quibble. This brain was discovered by deputy senior supervising editor Joe Neel, who's quite a big brain himself.
Do you have a tradition of sending food by mail? Let us know your favorites, your most feared, and what you'd really hope to get this year. It's not too late for your admirers to order. Or for me to send Joe that brain.