I know, I know: you’re on the way to ruining your diet with Halloween candy and here I am yakking about the holidays. But believe me, it is not too early to get your ducks—not to mention turkeys, briskets, steaks, slabs o’ bacon, relishes, cheeses, sauces, jellies, cakes, pies, ice creams, and flavored salts—in a row. Because the truth is that whatever the larger spiritual meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas, in fact, they’re all about the food.
No, really. The bonding that goes along with sharing a meal or giving food as a gift is at the heart of the holidays. In an ideal world, of course, you would prepare all the meals, do all the shopping, and mail all the presents yourself. But as you know, the Ideal World as We Know It came to an end circa 1957, and ever since then, intelligent people have been asking themselves, “Why should I have a nervous breakdown doing all that work when I can pay somebody to have one for me?”
With this in mind, back in February I contacted every Texas mail-order food company I could find, and for the next seven months, I tasted, tasted, and tasted some more. Some weeks, the poor deliveryman could hardly see over his dolly. (The high, or low, point was the day he staggered in with 98 pounds of meat and an apple pie from one barbecue company alone.) By mid-September, the tally had topped out at more than four hundred products.
In the end, I chose some forty items to feature in the magazine (and more than twenty very good runners-up). This list is wildly varied and unapologetically personal: I love barbecue and chocolate, so there are lots of briskets, ribs, and bonbons. I’m unimpressed with most jalapeño jelly, so there’s just one of those. In the end, though, every item is something I would be tickled to get as a gift (especially if I were living outside Texas) or proud to serve to my friends and family.
One final word: I suggest you order ten days before a major holiday, just to be safe. And be prepared for the delivery cost to be stout (prices listed here do not include shipping, unless noted). Mail order is not the cheapest way to go, but it’s worth it when you’re slammed with a zillion things to do. To paraphrase that commercial: One pecan pie, sent to Aunt Ethel in Pampa: $34.31. Letting somebody else do the work: priceless.
Mozzarella Company Cheeses Dallas
Attention, cheeseheads, if these descriptions don’t whet your appetite, nothing will: “Blanca Bianca—Washed with white wine daily during its aging process, it has a lovely golden brown rind and a creamy white semi-soft interior”; “Fresh Texas Goat Cheese—Mild, delicately flavored chevre”; and “Deep Ellum Blue—Earthy and complex.” Choose from twenty types by the biggest producer of totally handmade cheese in the state. Samplers begin at $47 (shipping is included). 214-741-4072 or mozzco.com.
Greenberg Smoked Turkey Tyler
A mahogany-hued smoked turkey from Greenberg, tender and juicy, is such a holiday tradition in some families that they’d sooner do without a Christmas tree. Greenberg does whole turkeys, not those atrocious cured boneless breasts, and they are divine. $3.65 a pound (6- to 15-pounders available). 903-595-0725 or gobblegobble.com.
Bear Creek Smokehouse Boneless Ham Marshall
Remember Dorothy Parker’s famous quip “Eternity is two people and a ham”? You’ll be happy that Bear Creek’s pink whole ham is hardly depleted after being used for a holiday dinner and then sandwiches the next day. Frankly, it looks pretty ordinary, but the flavor is sweet and not overwhelmed by salt. Four- to five-pound ham $44.90 (shipping is included). 800-950-2327 or bearcreeksmokehouse.com.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que Brisket, Pork Chops, and Pork Ribs Llano
Unlike most Texas barbecue purveyors, Cooper’s cooks “cowboy style,” with hot coals directly under the meat; the dripping juices sizzle like mad, and the smoke flavor is intense. These three were the best of the products sampled: The brisket was tasty, quite salty, and reasonably moist; the pork chops huge and gnarly (mini-roast size); the pork ribs falling- off-the-bone tender, with a peppery crust. Each item $10 to $11 a pound. 877-533-5553 or coopersbbq.com.
Mikeska Pork Ribs and Jalapeño Cheese Sausage El Campo
Talk about a good meaty flavor. These pork ribs have it, even though some parts are pretty darn fatty. The semi-coarse sausage has a distinctive jalapeño flavor smoothed out by a hint of American cheese. The quality is high, as you would expect from the Mikeska name, a famous one in Texas barbecuedom. Pork ribs $8.25 a pound, sausage $4.95 a pound. 800-388-2552 (orders may be e-mailed from the Web site, mikeskabbq.com).
Nolan Ryan Steaks Huntsville
Since retiring from baseball, former Houston Astros and Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan has beefed up—figuratively speaking. He now sells aged steaks from naturally raised cattle. What does that mean? No growth hormone implants or antibiotics are allowed during the last one hundred days. Of several cuts, the ribeyes were (predictably) the tenderest and juiciest. Four uncooked 10-ounce ribeyes $46.99. 936-436-1622 or nolanryanbeef.com.
Pederson’s Natural Farms Jalapeño Sausage and Applewood-Smoked Bacon Hamilton
For a sausage, this one is downright healthy. Preservative- and nitrite-free, it’s hot enough to make your nose run but not your eyes water. Pederson’s bacon proves that all bacon is not created equal. You’ll notice that when you fry this baby up in a pan. The applewood smoke is lighter than hickory or maple, and the lack of nitrites lets the sweet pork flavor shine through. One sausage link $3.99, 12-ounce package of bacon $3.49. 254-386-4790 or healthypork.com.
Perini Ranch Mesquite-Smoked Peppered Beef Tenderloin Buffalo Gap
I swear, once you try it, Tom Perini’s tenderloin will become one of your cherished holiday traditions. It’s utterly lean, soft as butter, and seasoned with a peppery, garlicky rub. While distinctive, the smoke flavor is not overwhelming. This tenderloin is fully cooked to a perfect medium rare, so all you have to do is defrost it (like almost all mail-order meat, it is shipped frozen). Plus, it comes in a cute cotton bag with the Perini emblem. Two-pound tenderloin $96. 800-367-1721 or periniranch.com.
Salt Lick Beef Brisket and Secret Recipe Sauce Driftwood
It’s called Thurman’s Pride in honor of the Salt Lick’s co-founder, the late Thurman Roberts. And it’s the best brisket I tried: smoky, not too salty, unabashedly fatty (but that’s what makes it so good). Also, the Salt Lick’s mustardy, sweet-tart Secret Recipe Sauce is fantastic. Tomato-free, it has spicy flavors of star anise and ginger. Brisket $49.95, six bottles of sauce $29.95. 512-894-3117 or saltlickbbq.com.
Blue Bell Ice Cream Brenham
Do you know a former Texan with a serious jones for Blue Bell? Send him some Homemade Vanilla, not to mention Caramel Turtle Fudge or Key Lime Pie or Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. The national ice cream company of Texas makes 17 flavors year-round and rotates an additional 27 in the half-gallon size. (This gift is best for far-flung expatriates, since the brand is sold in stores throughout the South.) Four half gallons $89 (shipping is included). 979-836-7977 (orders are not taken on the Web site, bluebell.com).
Talenti Gelato Dallas
The subtle colors (pale buff, icy white, baby pink) look as good as the names sound (Argentine Dulce de Leche, Caribbean Coconut, Strawberries and Cream). The Talenti gelato company makes forty flavors, of which fifteen are offered at any given time. The packaging, clear plastic with black lids, is classy too. The company’s name pays tribute to Bernardo Buontalenti, a sixteenth-century Florentine architect and all-round talented guy who is said to have invented gelato for the court of Francesco de Medici in 1565. Nice ice, baby. Nine pints $60. 214-526-3600 or talenti.us/.
CITRUS FRUIT ROUNDUP
Texas Red Grapefruit and Oranges Rio Grande Valley
Aside from barbecue and steaks, there is no more iconic Texas Christmas gift than a box of gorgeous red grapefruit or oranges from the Rio Grande Valley. They’re a great antidote to the winter blues, and all of the following producers grow fine fruit.
Crockett Farms, Harlingen: 800-580-1900 or crockettfarms.com.
Pittman and Davis, Harlingen: 800-289-7829 or pittmandavis.com.
Resaca Grove Farm, Brownsville: 956-546-3771 or lonestargrapefruit.com.
Thompson’s Rio Pride, Weslaco: 800-864-7728 or riopride.com. Two dozen grapefruit $32–$45, thirty to forty oranges about $25.
Janie’s Cakes Tyler
Janie Clapp raises the chickens that lay the eggs that go into her pound cakes—fresh eggs do make a difference. “Gorgeous” is the only word for these eight Bundt-style cakes; the Berry Jane, for instance, has generous shavings of white chocolate on top and homemade raspberry curd in the center. And the yellow-and-white-striped boxes are tied with perky blue bows. $27. 866-452-6437 or janiescakes.com.
Backroads Bakery Fried Pies Gordon
You gotta love a company that started out in a home kitchen on, yes, a back road in West Texas. These chubby little fried pies—made with thick, crumbly, cakelike crusts—come in six flavors. I homed in on the buttermilk and the apple (with small, chunky slices), but the cherry, apricot, pineapple, and peach are fine too. This is a great gift for a bunch of kids. Twenty-five pies $30. 254-693-5454 or backroadsbakery.com.
Goode Company Pecan Pie Houston
“Even the goo is good,” exulted one of the ravenous crew that attacked this pie when we put it up for grabs in the office kitchen. I agree, and the crumbly crust and toasty pecan halves raise it above the competition. Plus, it comes in a cute pine box stamped with the company’s motto: “You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you’re in Texas.” $27.50. 800-627-3502 or goodecompany.com.
Heritage Pie Company Apple Pie Jasper
This is one tall pie. A slice could feed a family for a week—and no wonder, since each pie contains about a dozen apples. The fruit is sliced thin so that the sweet, well-cinnamoned juices flow around each piece. Equally important, these juices are thickened the home-style way with flour instead of gummy cornstarch. $34.95. 877-816-1400 or heritagepies.com.
Original Ya-Hoo Baking Company Cinnamon Streusel Butternut Coffee Cake Sherman
On Christmas morning, when you’re opening gifts around the tree, you’ll need something to keep up your strength. Ya-Hoo’s ring-style coffee cake, shot through with buttery streaks of cinnamon and gilded with a streusel-and-chopped-pecan topping, is your solution. The texture is moist and properly coarse, just like homemade. $22.95. 888-869-2466 or yahoocake.com.
Royers Round Top Cafe Original Buttermilk Pie Round Top
Royers has the best, flakiest crusts of any mail-order pies I’ve ever eaten, bar none. Homemade classics, they’re tender and beautiful, like the pies cooling on the windowsill of the seven dwarfs’ house in Walt Disney’s Snow White. Of all the pies that Royers ships, the buttermilk is my favorite—pale gold and creamy, with just the right amount of nutmeg. $22.95. 877-866-7437 or royersroundtopcafe.com.
Sticky Toffee Pudding Company Sticky Toffee Pudding Austin
The idea comes from the Lake District of England, but this exotic concoction tastes like something out of 1001 Arabian Nights. Finely puréed dates, soaked in vanilla and espresso, are the secret ingredient. Despite the name, the confection resembles a sponge cake more than a pudding. As for the lush accompanying brown-sugar-and-pecan sauce, think melted toffee. Four servings with toffee sauce $15. 512-472-0039 or stickytoffeepuddingcompany.com.
Brown Paper Chocolates Houston
The strangest and most delightful chocolates I found are these two-inch-square solid chocolate cubes accented with fruit or nuts and tucked into little brown boxes. Some flavors are exotic, like the fragrant and salty white chocolate blended with lavender and Pimm’s #1 and dusted with fleur de sel (available by request). But less challenging ones are offered too, such as dark chocolate with Kahlua and crunchy cocoa nibs. Six cubes $48. 832-526-7967 or brownpaperchocolates.com (click on “Special Orders”).
Expressions Fine Artisan Chocolates Austin
Totally indulgent, Expressions’ champagne-chocolate truffles—one of many flavors—are crowned with tidbits of edible gold leaf. Its florentines (which are a bit like pieces of toffee) are made with combinations of toasted almonds, pecans, and coconut. Many cool gift boxes with fanciful names are offered. Three-ounce “zen” box $5. 888-263-7741 or expressionsfinechocolates.com.
Fat Turkey Chocolate Company Chocolates Austin
Stuck in a boring class, Jennifer Flood doodled a hand turkey. Voilà, her future company’s name was born. Luckily, there is nothing turkey about these dark chocolate bonbons, in flavors ranging from Irish cream to habanero–añejo tequila. Box of twelve $27. 800-834-3498 or fatturkeychocolate.com.
Roscar Bonbons and Country Truffles Bastrop
What is it with lavender and chocolate these days? Here’s another version, one of more than a dozen flavors of beautifully handcrafted bonbons (hard shell, soft center) and truffles (soft throughout). You can go wild with lime-tequila-jalapeño and creamy pumpkin pie. Or stick with soothingly familiar raspberry. The beribboned gift boxes are charming. Box of eight truffles and fifteen bonbons $38. 512-303-1500 or roscar.com (click on “FYI”).
CONDIMENTS & SNACKS
Austinuts Salted Deluxe Nuts Austin
Sometimes you feel like a nut, which is when you should try this premier assortment of crisp, dry-roasted pecan halves, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, and pistachios, one of scores of selections. $11.99 a pound. 877-329-6887 or austinuts.com.
Fischer & Wieser Original Roasted-Raspberry Chipotle Sauce Fredericksburg
Cream cheese never had a better friend than this sweet, zesty sauce, which is, along with chile con queso, all but obligatory at Texas holiday parties. 15.75-ounce jar $8.95. 800-880-8526 or jelly.com.
Hudson’s on the Bend Guava and Sour Cherry Sauce Austin
A robust, tangy-sweet sauce for pork, ham, and yes, cream cheese, this one has guava, which gives it an interesting, tropical flavor. 12.75-ounce jar $14. 800-996-7655 or hudsonsonthebend.com.
Mikeska Peppered Beef Jerky El Campo
Unlike others, this jerky will never be mistaken for a dog’s chew toy. It strikes a nice balance between moist and dry, and the flavor is reminiscent of pastrami. $19.95 a pound. 800-388-2552 (orders may be e-mailed from the Web site, mikeskabbq.com).
Tank Town Rainwater Dripping Springs
Anybody who misses the Lone Star State needs a bottle of real Texas rainwater. This particular cloud juice falls over Central Texas skies and is bottled in Dripping Springs. (Full disclosure: The company is owned by Richard Heinichen, husband of Texas Monthly writer-at-large Suzy Banks, but we’d like the water even if we didn’t know them.) Twelve 1-liter bottles or twenty-four 16-ounce bottles $35 (shipping is included). 512-894-0861 or rainwatercollection.com.
Texas Traditions Jalapeño Pepper and Prickly Pear Cactus Jellies Georgetown
This is the prettiest jalapeño jelly we tried, with flecks of chiles and bell peppers floating confetti-like in a yellow-green base. Expect medium heat, extreme sweetness, and a faintly salty undertone. Texas Traditions also cooks up a jelly made from pure cactus-fruit juice, sugar, and lemon. The color of tea, it tastes a bit like grape jelly with the subtlest hint of coffee—odd but fun. Ten-ounce jar $7.50. 800-547-7062 or texastraditions.com.
Spiceburst Salts Austin
Packaged in clever raffia-tied bottles with teeny wooden spoons attached, Spiceburst’s coarse Portuguese sea salt is mixed with truly fresh herbs and spices. Inhale deeply to appreciate orange with rosemary, chile with lime, dark roasted garlic, chipotle, and za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mix). Three 3-ounce jars $20. 512-419-9463 or spiceburst.com.
Bee Cave Honey Company Honeys Austin
Lovely scents arise from these whipped honeys, which are blended with lemon, orange, strawberry, raspberry, or cinnamon. They go great on waffles, in hot tea, or as a glaze over roasted meats. Three 8.25-ounce jars $32 (shipping is included). 512-328-7780 or beecavehoney.com.
Fat Turkey Chocolate Company Chocolate-Covered Coffee Beans and Habanero Sauce Austin
These compulsively snackable coffee beans don’t look like the same old same old (each one wears a twee chocolate “ruffle”). The company’s salsa is—surprise—actually a terrific chocolate sauce with essence of habanero and aged tequila. Warning: It delivers a kick in the pants, friends. Three-ounce jar of beans or eight-ounce jar of salsa $10. 800-834-3498 or fatturkeychocolate.com.
Kakawa Chocolate-Covered Cocoa Beans Austin
High-quality whole cocoa beans nestle inside a triple coating of dark, milk, and white chocolate dusted with cocoa. They deliver a serious crunch and lots of texture. Twelve-ounce bag $28. cocoapuro.com.
Love Creek Orchards Cider Sauce Medina
Think apple pie in a jar. Love Creek Orchards’ thin, toasty-brown sauce has a ton of nutmeg and cinnamon and comes in a simple glass bottle. I like it best on ice cream. Fourteen-ounce bottle $6.95. 800-449-0882 or lovecreekorchards.com.
Oliver Pecan Company Pecan Honey Butter San Saba
Pancakes and sopaipillas everywhere are begging for this dense, nutty spread thickened with finely ground pecans. Eleven-ounce jar $5. 800-657-9291 or oliverpecan.com.
Orleans Pralines Houston
As sweet as your darling’s kiss, these pralines are whipped up from caramelized sugar, cream, butter, vanilla, and pecans. They’re the crisp-but-soft kind; chewy-praline fans must seek elsewhere. Tin of six to eight pralines about $13. 713-523-8003.
Sweet and Simple Cookie Company Pan de Polvo Cookies Laredo
Light but outrageously rich, these Mexican cinnamon-sugar shortbread cookies are delicate and crunchy at the same time. Baker’s dozen $8.95. 956-712-4116 or sweetandsimplecookies.com.