texasmonthly.com: You wrote that you “contacted every Texas mail-order food company I could find.” How many companies, all-in-all, did you order from? What were your search methods?
Patricia Sharpe: We scrounged the Web, rifled through the crumbling brochures I had saved for twenty years, and sent out e-mail pleas to everybody we could think of. We finally ended up with more than two hundred company names. Then, we sent out letters to all of them. A little more than one hundred companies responded by sending us something to try. Some of those, like the cookie lady in Laredo, just sent one thing. Others specialized in gift baskets, and they sent dozens of things.
texasmonthly.com: This article was a team effort with your intern, Brooke Ferguson. How did she help?
PS: Brooke was my main man, no gender disrespect intended. She did all the Internet research on Texas mail-order companies, sent out all the mailings (I mean right down to printing out the letters and licking the envelopes). Then she kept track—on this humongous spreadsheet she devised—of what we had requested and when it arrived. This came in handy when one barbecue company got all huffy with us because they thought they hadn’t been asked to participate. We consulted the magic spreadsheet and found they had been sent a letter on June 14. So they had a chance, just like everybody else. They just blew it.
texasmonthly.com: During the seven months you worked on the story, how often were you eating the food you had ordered for it?
PS: For some reason, things came in waves. Some weeks masses of food would arrive. I would walk into the Texas Monthly offices and there would be three huge white plastic-foam boxes stacked in the reception area, full of frozen briskets, pies, cookies, sauces, relishes, everything under the sun. It got so I dreaded coming to work. I hardly had time for my regular work because sampling took up a majority of the day. One Friday we couldn’t finish, so on Saturday morning Brooke and I came up to the office and spent an hour and a half just eating food and taking notes. Then there would be days and days when nothing came, and I would be all anxious that we would never get enough to do the story.
texasmonthly.com: Did you personally taste every single item you ordered?
PS: Yes, indeedy. I ate it all. And so did Brooke. Of course, we just took a bite or two, given how much there was to sample. Otherwise, we would weigh five hundred pounds each.
texasmonthly.com: What was the strangest food that you tasted?
Brooke Ferguson: There were a number of condiments with, um, unexpected ingredients. Or just really odd combinations. Margarita jelly and mango jalapeño sauce sound interesting, but that’s not really something I want to put on my English muffin.
texasmonthly.com: After you tasted those four hundred food items, you must have had a ton of leftover food. What did you do with it?
PS: We gave the majority of it to two local soup kitchens that feed homeless and down-and-out people. If there wasn’t much left, or it looked too nibbled-on, we put it in the office kitchen for our employees to snack on or take home. Texas Monthly staffers will eat anything.
texasmonthly.com: How did you organize and keep track of your opinions about everything you tried?
PS: For the actual sampling, we made up evaluation sheets, which we filled out religiously as we sampled. They had lines for our notes on the taste and appearance and a box for a final score. We gave letter grades, A through F. (It reminded me of when I was a junior high English teacher, back in the Jurassic period.) We ended up using only the A’s and A-‘s for the story out of the more than four hundred items sampled (that was about 10 percent of the total). Well, we might have let in a couple of B+’s to increase product variety. In other words, our criteria were very rigorous.
texasmonthly.com: Brooke, how did your judgments compare with Pat’s? Was there any debate between you two or the rest of the volunteer tasters?
BF: We were pretty consistently in agreement. There were certain issues where I had to defer to Pat—for instance, the first time we tried something with cactus. I hadn’t eaten it before, so I just had to ask, “Is it supposed to taste like that?” (The answer was yes, it is.)
texasmonthly.com: How many dishes didn’t make it into the magazine or the Web site lists? Did you encounter any downright unpleasant food?
PS: More than three hundred products did not. In fact, there were a surprising number we gave D’s and F’s to. (You have to wonder about some folks’ taste.) Almost all the bottled salsas were unacceptable, because in order to keep a salsa shelf-stable, you have to add something like vinegar to keep the pH acid. Even a little really changes the flavor. Do you want vinegar in your salsa? I don’t.
texasmonthly.com: Did you have an overall favorite dish, something you would call the pinnacle of holiday cuisine?
PS: Yes! I adore Perini’s smoked, peppered beef tenderloin. It’s going to become my Christmas dinner tradition. Luckily, I come from a small family, so that will keep the expense within reason. (It’s $96 for a two-pound tenderloin, plus shipping, and worth every penny.)
texasmonthly.com: It’s the holiday season, so there’s a lot of appropriately not-so-healthy food in the story. Has it been difficult to keep your cholesterol level in check?
PS: I’m sure my cholesterol went through the roof on the day we got the 98 pounds of barbecue. I don’t even want to know what it is now. I don’t think you can walk that off, like you can the weight.
texasmonthly.com: What was the strangest thing to happen that was not necessarily food-related? Disgruntled postal workers? Bizarre company Web sites? Eccentric mail-order employees?
BF: Certain Texas Monthly employees always appeared whenever we were tasting. And wherever we were tasting. We hid in back rooms and side offices to try and throw them off the trail, but they always managed to track us down. It was pretty eerie.