GOT your phone, catalog, and credit card handy?
Now you can send Uncle Ernie that six pack of hot sauce for the holidays - without setting foot into a store or even creasing a sheet of wrapping paper.
Last year, more than half the adult population ordered merchandise by phone or mail, spending about $51 billion, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). This year, catalog sales are expected to climb to almost $55 billion.
Although food accounts for only a small fraction of all catalog orders, purchases doubled from 1.6 percent in 1990 to 3.2 percent in 1991, according to DMA. (Clothing is No. 1.)
Not surprisingly, the winter holiday season is the busiest time of year for most food catalog companies. ``Half of our business is at Christmas time,'' says Wendy Eidson, co-owner of Mo Hotta- Mo Betta, a mail-order company in San Luis Obispo, Calif. specializing in hot and spicy food.
It's hard to go wrong with a food gift. ``You can give it to practically everybody. One size fits all,'' says Susan McIntyre, owner of McIntyre Direct, a catalog agency and consulting firm based in Portland, Ore.
Sophisticated packaging and fast, reliable shipping have boosted business, McIntyre explains, noting that even fresh meat - as opposed to smoked - is shipped overnight these days.
Out of the hundreds, possibly thousands of companies to choose from, we checked out some that piqued our interest or came recommended to us. Thanks go to Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, authors of the book ``Food Finds,'' for their vision and inspiration. In the past decade, the Engels have investigated hundreds of food producers that offer mail order - some of which we mention here.
For more information on mail-order food, check out ``Food Finds,'' (HarperPerennial) and review catalog directories. ``The Mail Order Gourmet'' offers a directory and bi-monthly newsletter ($12); (800) 989-5996. And don't forget, when it comes to food, word of mouth can often be the best guide.
Here are some we tried:
102 Harbor Rd.
Shelburne, VT 05482
This 1,000-acre Vermont farm is a nonprofit conservation-education center, dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the stewardship of natural agricultural resources. Their award-winning Cheddar cheese is made from the milk of their own pure-bred Brown Swiss cows. Their catalog features various Vermont farm products, including boneless ham and maple syrup.
We received the Farm Sampler: a 2 lb.-block of sharp Cheddar, Raspberry Jam, Honey, and 1/2 pint of pure Vermont Maple syrup. ($35 includes shipping.)
American Spoon Foods, Inc.
1668 Clarion Avenue
P.O. Box 566
Petoskey, MI 49770-0566
Phone: (800) 222-5886
Fax: (800) 647-2512
This folksy company offers the bounties of a Northern Michigan summer: Fruit-packed preserves, fruit butters, salad ``dazzlers'' [dressings], dried cherries, cranberries, blueberries; dried mushrooms; and other regional specialties. Also, chef Larry Forgione presents his own line of products. Folk-art gift boxes and birch-bark baskets make for lovely presentation.
We received the ``Fruitlands Box'' - Strawberry preserves, Red Haven Peach Preserves, Sour-Cherry Spoon Fruit (no sugar), Seedless Red- Raspberry Butter, Dried Red Tart Cherries, Dried Cranberries, and Dried Blueberries (with recipes). (The Fruitlands Box sells for $40 including shipping for addresses east of the Rockies; add $2.50 for shipping to Rockies or west of Rockies.)
Frieda's By Mail
P.O. Box 58488
Los Angeles, CA 90058
Phone: (800) 241-1771
The mother-daughter team of Frieda and Karen Caplan runs this company specializing in exotic foods, including tropical fruits, herbs, chiles, elephant garlic, squash, and wild mushrooms.
We received the ``Exotic Fruit basket'' - passion fruit, feijoas, pepino melon, red bananas, horned melon, Asian pears, manzano bananas, and more. (Five lbs. of fruit is $66, including shipping. A helpful guide to exotic fruits with recipes is enclosed.)
85 Leavitt Street
Salem, MA 01970-9859
Phone: (800) 243-2115
For 17 years, this small Salem, Mass. company has been making high-quality, handmade chocolates with a nautical theme. Sweet Shells, Barque Sarahs, Marblehead Mints, Harbor Lights, Sand Dollars, and Sweet Sloops (almond-butter-crunch triangles dipped in dark and white chocolate) are just a few of the specialties.
Most agree that the chocolates are well worth their price in terms of quality and taste (no artificial ingredients). We received the Gift Assortment, which is $23 for 32 chocolates (12 oz.). Shipping runs $3.95. Chocolate dinosaurs are a non-nautical item sure to delight kids.
1364 Rufina Circle, No.1
Santa Fe, NM 87501
Phone: (800) 866-HOWL
Coyote Cafe's general store promises to deliver ``foods that'll make you howl.'' This catalog offers Southwestern cuisine starring a pack of chiles: chipotles, habaneros, serranos, and more. Hot sauces and salsas (highly rated by critics) as well as other specialties such as an exotic bean sampler bring Santa Fe to your table.
We received a salsa crate - Fire-roasted Salsa and Tomatillo Serrano Salsa ($24.95) - and a hot-sauce minipack, featuring three hot sauces in a minicrate (24.95). Shipping is not included.
Jane and Harry Willson
Sunnyland Farms, Inc.
P.O. Box 8200
Albany, GA 31706-8200
Phone: (800) 999-2488
Jane and Harry Willson have been shipping ``Pecans plain and fancy - and other nuts and fruits'' for 45 years. The selection is vast.
We received the Pecan Roulette: Jane's Famous Orange Frosted Pecan Halves and Sugar 'n Spice Pecan Halves; Extra-fancy Mammoth Toasted and Salted Pecan Halves; plus Sunnyland Milk Chocolate Pecan Clusters. (One lb., 12 oz.; $22.50 includes shipping.) The Quartet - four chocolate-and-nut barks (milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white almond, pistachio) - is also a favorite. (One lb., $15.95, includes shipping.)
Mo Hotta-Mo Betta
P.O. Box 4136
San Luis Obispo, CA 93403
Phone: (800) 462-3220
``If you can't stand the heat, get out of this catalog!'' advise Tim and Wendy Eidson, owners of this specialty mail-order company.
Mo Hotta-Mo Betta offers eclectic hot sauces and various condiments, food, and food-related products sure to put ``sweat on your brow, a tear in your eye, and a smile on your face.''
We received the Best-Sellers Six Pack of hot sauce: Dave's Insanity, Island Treasure Papaya Pepper Sauce, Tango Tamarind, Trinidad, Voo Doo Jerk Slather, and Vidalia Onion Hot Sauce ($45 includes wooden crate carrier, but not shipping).
Yow! Pass the fire extinguisher.