Getting a regional repast is as easy as dialing for delivery

MAIL-ORDER MEALS

November 05, 1995|By JON MORGAN

Time was when a genuine New England clambake required lobsters, clams and beach sand -- not to mention a trip to New England.

Now, with a quick call to an 800 number, a pair of live lobsters can be scuttling out of a seaweed wrap on your counter in time for tomorrow's dinner. Coming along for the trip: clams, chowder, bibs, place mats, claw crackers and cooking instructions.

Advances in packaging and overnight mail delivery have made possible the shipping of authentic, indigenous foods -- many of them perishable -- that previously could be enjoyed only with an airline ticket. If consumers are willing to pay some occasionally stiff prices, they can receive -- or send as gifts -- Memphis ribs, a clambake from Boston's venerable Legal Seafood, Western-style brisket from Buck's Barbeque in Wichita, Kan., and steamed crabs from Baltimore.

It's the ultimate for a society engrossed in the conflicting ideals of fast travel and home-style cooking: quaint hometown fare rushed by jumbo jet to the location of your choice. Put in your order and start melting the butter.

"Times are changing and people don't like to go out. [A clambake] can be a very romantic dinner in, or a gift for displaced New Englanders," says Lisa Landry, director of mail orders for Legal Seafood, a Boston landmark.

Legal Seafood is one of a growing number of restaurants, mail-order suppliers and other retailers that will be busy this holiday season satisfying the yearnings of transplanted, or just plain curious, Americans.

The shipping of prepared and fresh food is developing a following among party-givers short on time, gift-givers long on cash and the culinarily adventurous. And it is expanding the horizons of a business better known for the mailing of spices, canned hams, coffee and other less-perishable goods.

Getting genuine, regional fare delivered to your home is not cheap: Legal Seafood's most popular meal-by-mail is the "Maine Event" for two, featuring a pair of lobsters accompanied by littleneck clams, clam chowder, claw crackers, lobster bibs, place mats and cooking instructions. The cost is $99.99. Dinner for four is $159.99. Call (800) 477-LEGAL.

Gift certificates are a popular way to give the lobsters to someone who may prefer advance notice when a pair of live crustaceans is scheduled to drop in. Recipients get a certificate they can use to order the meal at their convenience.

Kelly Cusask, shipping manager for Corky's, a famous Memphis rib house, says her company ships 30 to 50 orders a day. During the holiday season, orders will swell to as many as 500 a day, all heading out care of the Memphis-based Federal Express service.

"It's huge," she says.

The restaurant got into the shipping business about eight years ago; now mail orders account for about an eighth of its total sales -- mostly coming in on the toll-free line: (800) 9-CORKYS. Recently, Corky's filled an order for 800 dinners.

That's an expensive party even by catering standards, but it may be the only way a displaced Memphian can get the real thing.

Corky's minimum order is a dinner for four, at $59.99. You get -- or give -- a rack of pork ribs, a pound of pork shoulder already

pulled from the bone (enough for four to five sandwiches), and a bottle of sauce and packet of dry seasoning (Memphians debate endlessly the merits of dry vs. wet seasoning). The ribs are cooked, frozen and shrink-wrapped, then shipped the same day with dry ice and warming instructions.

For $74.99, you can get all of the above and several orders of baked beans, fudge or pecan pie, and six rolls. Also available from Corky's: beef brisket and barbecue pizza.

Orders placed by 3:30 p.m. Eastern time will be delivered by 4 p.m. the next day. Corky's recommends getting your order a day in advance to prepare it for warming and serving.

Jay Waters, the founder of McCalla General Store and Provision Co. of McCalla, Ala., just outside Birmingham, says a mail-order meal "falls into the category of gifts for people who have everything -- something they can't get themselves where they live now."

He recently filled an order for the spouse of a displaced Southerner now living in the North and pining for the food he grew up on, especially Sand Mountain Country Syrup.

The cane syrup was the perfect elixir to lift homesick spirits, and a far more meaningful present than another tie, book or set of golf balls.

Mr. Waters says he does a lot of trade in Tennessee grits, Bob Syke's barbecue sauce and Red Diamond tea (popular for making ice tea in the South).

Now that many restaurants are in the business of shipping food overnight, finding a meal you want can be as easy as calling your favorite out-of-town eatery. There are also a couple of guides available, such as Allison and Margaret Engel's "Food Finds" (Harper Perennial, 1991). A number of providers also advertise on various shoppers' pages on the Internet.

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