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MAIL-ORDER MEALS Getting a regional repast is as easy as dialing for delivery

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Maryland's most famous cuisine is available. Phillips Harborplace can ship out 250 bushels of crabs a day during the peak holiday season, says James King, general manager.

"We get a lot of people from Baltimore. If they move down South, where people boil [rather than steam] their crabs, they will order from us. There are also a lot of people who have been here and had crabs or have seen them," Mr. King says. He ships a lot of crabs to California, New York and even Florida -- where the customers sometimes get crabs that originate in Florida, are cooked here and sent back.

Because of the chance of spoilage, Phillips usually ships already steamed crabs. Once, however, the restaurant sent an order of raw soft-shelled crabs to Germany for a reception aboard the Pride of Baltimore goodwill ship.

A dinner for two, with a dozen crabs, sells at seasonal prices, now about $25. Shipping is another $25 to $30. The crabs come in a box with mallets, bibs, napkins, seasoning and directions for reheating and eating.

Phillips also offers a clambake for two, with a pair of cooked lobsters, 10 live clams, 18 mussels, two ears of corn and baby red potatoes. This sells for $48.95, plus $28 to $30 for shipping. Call 685-6600, or toll-free (800) 782-CRAB. Gift certificates are available.

"There is a strong demand for certain products that are not available in local areas," says David Hayden, catering manager of Buck's Barbeque in Wichita, Kan., which advertises its mail-order fare on the Internet as Heartland Harvest.

Devotees of Buck's Texas-style beef barbecue can order a sliced beef dinner for one, with Western baked beans, for $5.50. Potato salad and coleslaw can be added, but the cost increases greatly ($55 for preparation and shipping). Mr. Hayden recommends sticking with the beef and buying the side dishes locally.

"They can get the salads in Baltimore," he says. "I want to be sure everything is fresh. That is hard to do."

Some restaurants remain skeptical of the ability of perishable food to survive the trip from one region to another. Mr. B's restaurant in New Orleans, for example, will satisfy an occasional out-of-town hankering for jambalaya, but the owners don't advertise or encourage shipped orders.

"If we have a customer who wants something, we will ship it, but we don't do a lot of that. You have to worry about spoilage," says Danielle Boyce, Mr. B's marketing manager. Several vendors provide spice kits to make jambalaya at home, and this is probably the way to go, she says.

A safe bet for someone concerned with spoilage is H&H; Bagels " of Manhattan, a noted purveyor of New York's most famous contribution to American breakfasts. "We ship bagels all over the world, often to New Yorkers who have left the city and can't find bagels they like," says company owner Helmer Toro.

He started shipping about seven years ago in response to frequent requests, and now estimates he ships about 10 percent of his kosher bagels daily. The orders often come in on the company's (800) NY-BAGEL hot line. Among the faithful customers: Barbra Streisand and Jerry Seinfeld. The latter has an order delivered weekly to the set of his show in Hollywood.

The minimum order is two dozen, and the bagels can be of one kind or a combination. For regular, next-day delivery, the order costs $39 and will arrive by 10:30 a.m. If you are really in a hurry, United Parcel Service can ship your order via its 8:30 a.m. guaranteed delivery. That's perfect for holiday office parties, but the speedy service costs another $25.

Also from New York: Cheesecake from Junior's Restaurant in Brooklyn can be sent anywhere in the United States for $21.95 plus shipping. Call (800) 9-JUNIORS. Orders arrive two days later.

Mail-order industry analyst Maxwell Sroge, of Maxwell Sroge Co., says the shipping of complete dinners is a very small part of the food-by-mail business, which is increasing by about 5 percent a year and has a lot of room to grow.

Overnight shipping companies say food transportation is a small part of their business, but one they are happy to accommodate.

"We do a lot of seafood overnight shipping from places like Baltimore," says UPS spokeswoman Peggy Moody.

The shipping company, through its shipping laboratory, works with restaurants to develop packaging, sometimes inventing special boxes. It also offers same-day delivery in some areas.

"It's somewhat pricey, but people have special likes in food and will pay for it," Ms. Moody says. "[Orders] truly can arrive in time for breakfast."

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