AS THE DAYS get darker and darker, it's easy to pine for the taste of long ago times, like last summer, when you spent hours devouring steamed crabs and beer.
Ann Wilder, president of Vanns Spices in Towson, says an increasing number of people choose to send friends and relatives a "Taste of Maryland" gift spice rack ($10) during the holiday season. The rack includes Chesapeake Bay Seafood Blend, Herbs for Fish, Lemon and Dill and Barbecue Rub.
The mail-order sales of food and food equipment in the United States were about $900 million last year, with a lot of that business occuring during the holidays, according to research by Marke/Sroge Communications, a catalogue consulting firm in Chicago. The firm expects sales to increase by seven percent this year.
Vanns Spices owes much of the success of its fledgling mail-order division to the new health consciousness of American cooks. Spices provide a great way to make low-calorie, low-cholesterol meals seem tasty--sometimes even exotic.
"We Americans have mostly flavored our food with fat, that's been our favorite flavor," Wilder says. "Now we're looking to herbs and spices to replace it."
Other popular spice gift packages include "Ski Week" with Savory Salad Seasoning, Chili Powder, Italian Seasoning and Cancun Rub and "Fish Spices" with Herbs for Fish, Lemon and Dill, Blackened Redfish and Chesapeake Bay. The company also sells a lemony, spicy hot Thai rub as well as pepper and anise Schezuan rubs; Wilder mentions 16 different spice combinations to add zip to dinners of grilled chicken and fish.
Wilder began relying on spices when she was teaching full-time at Boys Latin School and didn't feel up to the rigors of preparing elaborate meals for her family.
"If I had blends of herbs and spices, I could cook with my left hand without thinking," she says. "Finally, the rest of the world caught up with me. Now people are much more sophisticated about food. . .and no one has time to cook!"
They also don't have time to shop. At least 500 food companies in the U.S. offer direct mail services, according to the 1989 directory of mail order catalogs. Direct mail marketing consultant Jo-Von Tucker, who runs Clambake Celebrations, a mail-order business based in Cape Cod, says many businesses emphasize preservative-free, low fat and low cholesterol gift foods.
"Even the traditional meat-by-mail companies are trying to get into fish and fowl. They have things like Chicken Kiev and lobster tails to accomodate the interest in lower calorie food," says Maxwell Sroge, president of Marke/Sroge.
Here are a few suggestions for mail-order food gifts which are good for your health and easy on your bank account. Sources include Isabelle Tourneau's "Cooksource," a guide to food businesses.
*Vanns Spices: 1238 E. Joppa Road, Towson, Md., 21204. 301-583-1643. Vanns offers 11 different gift crates of spices (at $10 each) which they will mail anywhere in the U.S. The company also sells mulling spices, an aromatic blend of orange peel, cinnamon, allspice and other spices, for holiday drinks.
*Harry and David, Medford, Ore. 97501-0713. 1-800-345-5655.
Best known for fresh fruit, Harry and David began its mail order catalog business in the 1930s and is considered pioneers direct mailing specialty food.
Some treats you might consider: A compact box of Royal Riviera pears for $17.95; a decorative tin of low cholesterol cheeses including sharp and mild cheddars, hot jalapeno cheddar and tomato basil jack for $24.95; a gift box of apples and pears and Oregon trail mix for $19.95.
*Rossi Pasta, P.O. Box 759, Marietta, Ohio 45740. 1-800-227-6774. This company promotes such ingredients as free range eggs and unbleached enriched spring wheat in its 30 different pasta products. You can choose from such pasta flavors as basil black pepper, leek and onion, lobster, saffron and wild mushroom and garlic. There are also two varieties made without eggs.
A popular three pasta pack ($18.95) includes tomato, basil and garlic linguini; spinach, basil and garlic fettucini and angel hair pasta. You can also create your own gift box. A gift package which includes two sauces and two pastas is $24.95.
*Wolferman's, One Muffin Lane, P.O. Box 15913, Lenexa, Kan. 66215-5913. 1-800-999-0169. Perhaps the national mother lode of English muffins, Wolferman's offers a dozen different flavors including blueberry, cheddar cheese, raisin rice bran, oat bran, apple and raisin and cranberry. (Only the cheese varieties contain any cholesterol.) An English muffler sampler -- you select the flavors -- costs $18 for six packages. Each package contains four, two-inch thick muffins.