Going Postal

Dec. 11 1996 3:30 AM

Going Postal

The best way to do Christmas is by U.S. Mail.

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My family never celebrated Christmas, except by watching the first 15 minutes of Amahl and the Night Visitors on television every year, and nothing in my family's food culture prepared me for the frantic exchange of edibles that goes on at this time of year.

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Many Christmas customs still puzzle me. Why, for example, would you want to celebrate the birth of Christ by going out and killing a perfectly innocent pine tree, draping it with shredded aluminum foil and dyed popcorn, and throwing it in the garbage a week later? But giving and receiving food for Christmas is another thing entirely. By now, I have proudly eaten as many holiday cookies, hams, fudge pieces, mince pies, fruitcakes, roast geese, puddings, and ribbon candies as any God-fearing Christian. And, in all candor, I have become one of the world's leading experts in the eating of holiday gift food. My achievements as a selector and giver of yuletide delicacies follow closely.

My training began in earnest 20 years ago when the woman who was to become my wife moved in, bringing with her all the delightful, bulging baggage of a Mormon upbringing. Every year, right after Thanksgiving, her mother Marjorie mailed us several small white fruitcakes, neatly wrapped in waxed paper. They were meant to be aged and ripened in the refrigerator until Christmas. We would abide by this injunction with only one fruitcake and polish off the others, paper-thin slice by paper-thin slice, before two days had passed. As for the aged fruitcake, after two weeks in the refrigerator, it grew dense and less cakelike, and when we sliced it thinly, the result was a translucent, frolicsome mosaic of yellows, reds, and greens--two of which, I believe, are the official colors of Christmas.

Two weeks later, Aunt Vivian from Salt Lake City would send a large dark fruitcake, also wrapped in waxed paper and suspended in a shoe box with her patented, protective caramel-popcorn insulation; sometimes, the shoe box was large enough to hold another little package filled with delicate sugar cookies decorated with red and green sprinkles.

The other day, as I was thumbing through 10 years of women's magazines--looking in vain for good advice about making and mailing edible Christmas gifts--I came across several warnings not to use popcorn or cereals as the filler in Christmas packages. They are thought to entice insects and absorb noxious fumes. But let me assure you that the candied popcorn protecting Aunt Vivian's fruitcake never attracted the tiniest insect or the merest wisp of a noxious fume. The magazine suggests using crumpled newspaper instead. That works fine if you mail your gift from Salt Lake City and crumple up a copy of the Deseret News, but if you live in New York or Los Angeles, your lucky recipient is likely to read "Store Santa Slashes Tots, Self, on Sleigh" before he or she reaches the delicacies within.

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A s the years pass and Christmases come and go, fewer of my wife's relations are able to bake as much as they would like, and most of the younger generation seem more skilled with the can opener than the canning jar. But Marjorie and Aunt Vivian kept the fruitcakes coming until the end. Ten years ago, after an illness, Aunt Vivian substituted what people in Salt Lake City call TV Mix or TV Crunch, which is a melange of Wheat Chex, Corn Chex, Rice Chex, peanuts, and miniature pretzel sticks, all tossed with garlic salt, onion salt, and soy sauce, and intended, presumably, to be enjoyed while watching television. Trying not to sound ungrateful, we telephoned Vivian to let her know how much we missed her fruitcake. The following Christmas, she came out of retirement at the age of 88.

Now Vivian and Marjorie are gone. Real men may not bake fruitcakes, but they certainly can buy, wrap, stamp, and mail them. In truth, it is much easier than that. Packing and shipping become more sophisticated with each passing year, 800 and fax numbers abound, and even small producers take credit cards.

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I begin celebrating Christmas in August, by ordering all the new mail-order delicacies I can get my hands on and revisiting old standbys. Soon my mailbox fills up with Pacific oysters and happy clams, country hams and city hams, cassoulets for two, tons of crunchy toffee, strings of electric cows and sheep, and gallons of water melted from Arctic glaciers. There are days when I eat $1,000 worth of food, half of that sum spent on postage. The only excuse for not sending lots of food to yourself and others this holiday season is that you have a better idea, which I seriously doubt.

Click for Steingarten's list of the best of nearly every kind of food available by mail.

Jeffrey Steingarten is the food critic of Vogue, and has won several James Beard awards and a decoration from the French republic in the process.

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