Hard times

Shopping online for the obscure, the odd, and the outré

February 15, 2007

Welcome to Unexplained Bacon, a column that will answer, or at least attempt to answer, some of the food world’s most and least difficult questions.

Today’s topic: What are the most rewarding foods to buy online?

At the decadent end of the shopping spectrum, D’Artagnan will happily ship you duck confit and foie gras (even if you live in foie-gras-banned Chicago), and there are countless online purveyors of caviar, lobsters, truffles, and true wasabi. I enjoy all of those things and will happily accept donations.

For day-to-day pleasure and sheer bang for the buck, however, I recommend harnessing the power of the Internet to order grits and hardtack.

Crispy, crunchy hardtack.

A few weeks ago, I was entering my credit-card number to replenish my supply of New England common crackers. A New England common cracker, if you haven’t been introduced, is a round cracker about two inches in diameter made for eating with chowder. You split the cracker in two with a knife, like you’re splitting an English muffin (this is easier than it sounds), butter each half, and toast them in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.

Common crackers are direct descendants of hardtack, the tooth-shattering cracker that kept sailors and colonists alive (if you call that living) when there was little else to eat. It could be broken up in coffee, or smashed into a slurry with salt pork or bacon to make a sailor’s (and prisoner’s) dish called skillygalee.

As I hit the Submit button on my order, I imagined the expression on the face of an 18th-century sea captain as I explained to him that (1) I’m from the future, (2) given the choice of any food in the world, I was buying hardtack, and (3) the Red Sox won the World Series.

But common crackers aren’t the only peasant food I order by mail. By “peasant food,” I mean the subsistence foods that drive large groups of people crazy with their monotony. Or, put another way, it’s the staple food that you never believe you’ll get homesick for until you do.

Another reason to buy these foods is that they’re endangered: Whereas caviar will disappear if you buy too much of it, common crackers will disappear if you don’t buy enough of them.

So do your part. Here are some of my top picks; prices don’t include shipping.

Common crackers: The Vermont Country Store sells these faithful chowder companions for $4.50 a pound; theirs are made from King Arthur Flour. Alternatively, Bent’s Cookie Factory has been in the cracker business in Milton, Massachusetts, since 1801. Their recipe hasn’t changed, nor has the design of their website; especially unnerving is the part that reads, “Today, we want to welcome you into the new ‘cracker’ millennium.” Gee, that doesn’t sound ominous at all. Six pounds of crackers cost $30.

Scarlet runner beans from Rancho Gordo.

Beans: Rancho Gordo sells over two dozen varieties of dried beans, including Yellow Indian Woman, Wren’s Egg, and Garboncito. When I say Rancho Gordo’s beans are good, I don’t just mean they’re favored by people who already like beans; I mean they turn people who never thought about beans into bean obsessives who try to collect the whole set. Rancho Gordo also sells quality dried chiles and corn. Their beans cost $5 per pound.

Grits: Anson Mills. How do you spell deprivation? G-R-I-T-S. Or in my case, N-O G-R-I-T-S. And Anson’s aren’t the kind of unthreatening, user-friendly grits you find on supermarket shelves. They’re chunky and full of hulls that have to be carefully separated (instructions are included), and then the grits take 90 minutes to cook, minimum. You’ll be rewarded with a sore stirring arm and perhaps the most pure corn flavor ever to grace your plate. Try the shrimp-and-grits recipe included with your order. Three pounds go for $20. (Anson also sells quality white cornmeal for making Southern-style skillet cornbread; I use a John Thorne recipe.)

There are also peasant foods I haven’t ordered yet, but look forward to sampling:

Salt-cod fillets from La Tienda.

Salt cod: La Tienda. Most salt cod sold in the U.S. is imported from Canada and comes in a damp plastic bag. It’s not terrible, but it’s not the Mediterranean staple of yore, the one used to make the ultimate baccalà, pil-pil (cod stewed in olive oil), or salt-cod fritters. La Tienda sells the real stuff (12.7 ounces for $20), imported from Spain. They’ll also be selling Spanish Ibérico ham, the world’s greatest, as soon as it becomes legal to do so this year. A whole ham will run you about $1,200.

Finally, there’s the peasant food I haven’t ordered yet and have no intention of doing so, even though I’m sure I will hear from its partisans:

Scrapple: Kunzler & Company. Scrapple is a traditional Pennsylvanian loaf of spiced hog offal and cornmeal. “Served warm and browned, the taste will bring you back to the old farm kitchen where it originated over 200 years ago,” Kunzler says of its scrapple, and I have no reason to doubt this. $5 per pound.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. You can also find him at www.rootsandgrubs.com.

There are 12 comments on this item
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1. by Laurel on Feb 15, 2007 at 10:36 PM PST

Speaking of offal, I’ve been thinking of ordering an organic haggis:


2. by Andrew on Feb 16, 2007 at 6:44 AM PST

Some random comments:

- I understand you can cook good grits in a rice cooker, largely unattended (I think you have to stir only occasionally). I just got a good cooker and I will be trying it with cereals.

- Ever since I discovered goetta, scapple’s coarser cousin from the Cincinnati area, my fanatacism for scrapple has waned.

3. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Feb 16, 2007 at 7:01 AM PST

Laurel, I would be honored if you would share your organic haggis with me. Andrew, I will give rice cooker grits a try.

4. by Neil on Feb 16, 2007 at 9:22 AM PST

I confess that I purchase beef jerky online on a semi-regular basis. The stuff most supermarkets carry (usually Oberto) is nearly inedible. The best I’ve found is from Tillamook Country Smoker (http://www.tcsjerky.com/) based in Tillamook on the Oregon coast. I especially like the black pepper beefsteak nuggets and the honey glazed beef jerky.

5. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Feb 16, 2007 at 5:55 PM PST

The Tillamook Country Smoker nuggets are great, although they’re sort of disconcertingly caught between steakiness and jerkiness, if that makes sense. Sara Dickerman wrote a great article about jerky on Slate recently; if you search there for “jerky”, I’m sure you’ll find it. Along with a bunch of pieces about Christopher Hitchens.

6. by Joe Fish on Feb 18, 2007 at 6:57 AM PST

Although I did enjoy this column, I take issue with your depiction of scrapple as a mystery meat product to be avoided. Quality scrapple- however dichotomous that may sound- is made only partially from offal, and then only the liver and heart, the same two organs without which most country pates would be bland, textureless meatloaves. The majority of it is made from the meat of the head, neck and other areas where small amounts of meat are held hostage by the shape of the bones around it; it is a dish of economy from a culture who writes a rich and long chapter of the history of America’s indigenous cuisines.

And let’s face it, if you cut away the schoolyard humor and look at the reality of the food before you, I’d say to a novice of both, salt cod would be much less appetizing.

7. by Maggi on Feb 18, 2007 at 1:06 PM PST

Well, for me the most satisfying thing I order online has to be Kaffir Lime Leaves and Galangal. In my neck of the woods, despite the abundance of Asian supermarkets, none seem to carry these Thai staples. When I receive my order form importfoods.com, I get all giddy and head straight to the kitchen.

8. by junglegirl on Feb 19, 2007 at 12:49 AM PST

I just received a mouth-wateringly fragrant box of organic cacao butter from the Dominican Republic. YUM! It smells so rich and bitter chocolatey - it’s unbeleivable. I am using it in raw food preparations.

9. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Mar 1, 2007 at 6:12 AM PST

Joe, scrapple is the world’s easiest target, and I couldn’t resist. I actually would be happy to try it.

10. by Nika on Mar 25, 2007 at 2:27 PM PDT

Here in MA, you can buy the common crackers off the supermarket shelf.. those things are the best for morning sickness.

11. by anonymous on Oct 17, 2012 at 3:51 PM PDT

I love this post. I love checking out new and interesting food that I have never seen or tasted before. I love cheese" at it seems like there is a never ending supply of different types from countless places around the earth.

12. by I love cheese on Oct 17, 2012 at 3:55 PM PDT

Not sure why my last post screwed up but for me I love checking out new and interesting food that I have never seen or tasted before. I love buying cheese at it seems like there is a never ending supply of different types from countless places around the earth.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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