Saturday, December 04, 2004

Summer sausage in winter

Like it? 
There are certain sights, sounds and smells that put me in that fine Yuletide frame of mind. That pleasant sting in my nose when snow's on the way, for instance. When Stop & Shop starts stocking egg nog. Those houses on President Avenue and Second Street whose owners are wonderfully insane when it comes to stringing up the lights.

Another thing that gets me all Christmassy, every time: the sight and smell of meat, cheese and crackers in tidy little wooden boxes. Yes. I defy you to name a mail-order gourmet sausage company that says "Christmas" more than Hickory Farms.

For all I know, Hickory Farms may sell gift packs of beefy junk food during other seasons. I don't know. Frankly, I don't want to know. The idea of flip-flopping outside one sweltering August afternoon, sweat-browed in shorts and a T-shirt, to find that a box of pork has been sitting in a blazing patch of sun near my mailbox for hours -- I'd rather not think of it.

So to me, Hickory Farms is only a Christmastime thing. The mall kiosks look so great duded-up for the holidays, and the gift boxes are a time-honored way to fulfill your Christmas obligation to that person in your life whose hobbies you can't remember but who you're pretty certain eats food.

I vividly recall one Christmas season spent in my college dorm in Boston. I was a freshman spending his first months away from the nest. My friends and I were hanging out in the hallway, bored, as usual -- so like any ennuye college freshmen, we collectively decided to channel our energy toward positive activities like drinking beer. Did I say "drinking beer"? I meant "crocheting lap blankets for the elderly."

Anyway, at some point, some girl I'll call Trixie came by with a Hickory Farms gift box featuring a delightful assortment of cheeses, nuts, candy and sausage. It had come from one of her more thoughtful relatives who had unfortunately forgotten that Trixie was a lifelong militant vegetarian.

Trixie held out a 14-ounce summer sausage. "Anybody want this tube of dead pig flesh?" she said.

I waved her over. "Let's have it, kid," I said, and I ran it under my nose like a fine Cuban cigar. Then I cracked it open and bit off a piece. It was deliciously smoky.

The next day, I was still trying to finish off the entire Hickory Farms sausage myself. I had no refrigerator, so I'd left a gnawed stub of it on my desk by an open window, which kept it cool -- or at least not hot.

The day after that, one of my roommates said, "You should probably throw that thing out." He was leaning over me at the time -- I was on my back on the floor, holding my bloated, aching stomach in one hand and a few ounces of ragged summer sausage in the other. Sleigh bells rang in my head from all the sodium.

"Mustard," I croaked. "If I just ... had ... more mustard ..."

"Don't be a hero," he said. "Hand over the summer sausage."

Long story short, we threw it away. But that cherished Christmas memory has not spoiled yet.

I visited the Hickory Farms store in the Swansea Mall recently. It's full of Beef Sticks and Smoky Bars -- those are blocks of cheese with a grill pattern smoked into them, like the back of Tía Maria's legs after sitting on the patio furniture. I also
went online to the Hickory Farms Web site -- all research so I could spread the word to you, friends. Use this information to give someone you love a Christmas memory, like mine, that they'll never forget.

There are dozens of gift packs to choose from, for every budget and for every taste.

There's the forehead-slapper Beef 'N Cheese pack for $29.99, sort of the Big Mac of Hickory Farms packages. I had taken notes on what's in this one -- but I lost them. So the contents of the Beef 'N Cheese will have to remain a mystery.

Is there somebody you wish would take a hike? Why not give him the Hickory Farms Backpacker? It contains all the necessities one needs when hiking among wild, hungry animals: "Enjoy our 14 oz Beef Stick Summer Sausage, 6 oz Smoked Gouda, 4 oz each
Chedd'r, Chedam and Smoky Bar, 2 oz Tangy Bacon Cheese Spread, 3 oz Sweet-Hot Mustard and Strawberry Bon Bons." The Tangy Bacon Cheese Spread can also be used as pitch to repair ruptured kayaks.

Hickory Farms also supplies a subtle way of insulting that special person in your life who's a compulsive liar -- get him a Crock! It comes with cheese in it, I believe.

To send another kind of hidden message, for $25.99 there's the Hickory Farms "Most Elegant Nutmeat." Please supply your own joke here.

There are so many choices, it's hard to decide what exactly to buy. So why not buy pretty much every goddam thing Hickory Farms sells in one box for a whopping $119.99? It's The Diplomat, or the Hickory Farms Gout 'N a Box.

"This gift is called The Diplomat because it pleases a lot of palates! With a 3 lb Beef Stick Summer Sausage" -- you read that correctly -- "12 oz each of Heritage Swiss and Country Cheddar Cheese Spread Crocks, 14 oz each American Classic Summer and Smoky Mesquite Sausages, 2.25 lb Smoky Bar, 10 oz Mild Cheddar Horn, 9 oz Mission Jack, 7 oz each Edam and New York Style Cheddar Cheeses, 6 oz Smoked Gouda, 6.5 oz Apple Pie Cheddar, 16 oz Holiday Collection of Deluxe Mixed Nuts, 6.25 oz each Sweet Hot and Honey Mustards, 4.4 oz Water Crackers, etc." By "etc.," they mean a gift certificate good for $5 off at the emergency room of your choice.

Besides gift boxes, Hickory Farms also sells entire dinners -- the perfect gift for anybody who's lousy at making dinner. Imagine the look on Grandma's face when she opens the gamy-smelling present that's been under the tree for a few days, and finds it's a 6-pound Precooked Frenched Pork Loin. Not tempted? What if I told you it was on sale? It's reduced (for reasons unknown) from $95.95 to just $67.15.

By far the nicest gift Hickory Farms has to offer would be the charmingly tactless "This Lil Piggy" gift basket. It comes with a Beef Stick, cheese, mustard and yes -- ham. Also, it has a cute cutting board shaped like a pig, so you can relive the experience of a knife slicing into pork over and over again.

It's educational, too -- use the cutting board as a sort of map to figure out where on the pig the ham came from.

Any one of these gifts and more would make your holiday bright. And with all that cheese and processed meat, it'll be the gift that keeps on giving, at least for a day or two afterward.

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