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Magnolia Bakery , the Greenwich Village corner bakeshop credited with jump-starting the cupcake craze, this week started shipping its cupcakes to customers who aren't within

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How to Know Whether Food is Worth Shipping

Magnolia Bakery Classic Cupakes in a Signature Tin.jpg
Magnolia Bakery, the Greenwich Village corner bakeshop credited with jump-starting the cupcake craze, this week started shipping its cupcakes to customers who aren't within shopping distance of the store's locations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Dubai.

All cupcake sentiments aside, this seems like a spectacularly bad idea. I'm not such a stringent locavore that I'd oppose airlifting treats from one coast to the other: Before the recession forced us to reconsider how much money we were squandering on delivery charges, a friend and I had a monthly food exchange club in which we'd choose a theme, such as "mauve" or "1922," and find mailable edibles to fit it. I remember coming home to boxes of haddock filets and bags of masa flour.

But cupcakes - even those produced by Magnolia Bakery - don't fit any of the criteria for food worth sending. Here, a few guidelines for gauging whether an item merits its shipping cost. (Magnolia Bakery charges $18 for a set of six vanilla butter cream cupcakes, but tacks on an additional $51.82 overnight shipping fee for Seattle customers so the snacks don't arrive stale.)

There is nothing like it within 200 miles.

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Gas costs about $3.50 a gallon in Seattle today, allowing most drivers to fill their tanks for $50 - or the same price Magnolia charges for shipping. The average US car gets close to 25 miles a gallon, which means a full tank should carry a driver about 400 miles, or to Portland and back. Granted, there are other costs associated with devoting a day to, say, a Kenny & Zuke's corned beef run, but the economics are sufficiently sound for our purposes. If you can find the food, or an acceptable approximation, within 200 miles of home, skip the shipping rigamarole and go for a drive. Or, if it's a cupcake you're seeking, take a walk.

The food shipping industry continues to thrive because so many snacks are regionally-specific. If I'm hankering for a Kentucky country ham, I don't have much choice but to call Newsom's.

It isn't exceedingly perishable.

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Ice and insulated packaging help protect raw meats and delicate cheeses, but there are always risks involved with sticking food in a mailer, which is why many reputable mail-order companies insist on overnight shipping in hot summer months. Even if a cupcake survives its cross-country trip, it's unlikely to taste exactly as it did when the baker pulled it from the oven. That's why the foods best-suited for shipping often come in cans, tins or bottles. I regularly order liters of Crazy Water No. 3 from Mineral Wells, Tex., and have placed orders for McClure's Bloody Mary mix; Bamboo Ladies' bamboo pickles; Germack pistachios and Chase Cherry Mash.

It's meaningful.

I don't always abide by this rule: I've sent countless Zingerman's brownies, cheese straws and coffee cakes to friends who've never visited Ann Arbor, thereby violating all the above suggestions. But it's probably the most important rule on the list. In Seattle, deliciousness isn't only obtainable via mail order. There are plenty of fabulous foods already in the city. But Spinasse's tajarin can't stem a Cincinnati-born eater's craving for Gold Star spaghetti, chili and oyster crackers. No fishmonger here will ever make a smoked fish dip that reminds me of politicking in Haywood County, the way Sunburst Trout Farms' mountain trout dip does.

Ordering cupcakes from Magnolia because they're supposed to be pretty good seems awfully silly. But if you served Magnolia's caramel cupcakes at your wedding, the bakery's website is right here.

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