Thanksgiving is pizza. It’s bialys and lox. To me, it’s Chinese noodles, thick and chewy and doused in black vinegar and chili oil. It’s pierogies smothered in sweet, glistening caramelized onions. It’s my favorite cake from a bakery in upstate New York, and my favorite banana pudding from a bakery on the Upper West Side.
It’s turkey and all the trimmings, too. But before the bird even goes into the oven, the long Thanksgiving weekend is my excuse to conduct an unofficial food tour of the New York City area during my annual trips back home for the holiday.
At least, it used to be. This year, like many Americans, I’m not going home for Thanksgiving. I can’t dine with my extended family, and I won’t get to revisit my favorite food memories from past haunts: the ultra-greasy slice from the pizza place where I worked in high school, the bowl of borscht from the 24-hour Ukrainian diner that turns my tongue magenta, the bagel so warm and fresh it can melt the entire inch-thick pad of cream cheese stuffed inside.
Instead, I’m having those memories delivered.
Takeout in the COVID era has moved beyond city limits. Today, a person in Minnesota can have breakfast from New Jersey, lunch from Tennessee, dinner from Texas and dessert from California.
It may sound impractical, even crass, when there are so many wonderful places to order food from right here. The carbon footprint is surely outrageous, and so is the cost.
But for homesick transplants, like me, it can bring as much comfort as a warm blanket. For small Minnesota food companies, it can be a profile-raising lifeline. And for travelers who typically plot their way through cities with maps of the best eats, it can be the next best thing to actually going somewhere.
Think of it as food tourism, without leaving your dining room table.
“The No. 1 reason people travel is food,” said Joe Ariel, founder and CEO of Goldbelly, a site that handles the sales and marketing for food businesses that ship. With travel and restaurants impacted by the pandemic, his company “has stepped in to fill that niche.”
It has also tapped into “the emotional power of food,” Ariel said. “We aim to deliver the same feelings of comfort and nostalgia as you get on a trip or from a memory of a favorite place or former home.”
Filling a void
Three Thanksgivings in a row, when Brian Rexing was in high school, his family would drive six hours to take his brother to a cross-country race outside Chicago. They would do their holiday shopping in the city, and always made a point of stopping for deep dish pizza at Gino’s East.
Decades later, Rexing, of Inver Grove Heights, hasn’t forgotten the pizza’s hallmark biscuit-like crust and the “beat-up walls in there where people would write all over,” he said.
The past few years, he has ordered pizza from Gino’s East several times, frozen and shipped straight from Chicago.
“It brings back memories,” he said. “It’s not quite the same as eating there in person, but it’s definitely close enough.”
Using Goldbelly, Rexing has also sent his friends chili from Cincinnati, and he plans to ship himself crabcakes from a restaurant he loved when he lived in Boston.
“It’s obviously more expensive than buying it in person,” he said. “But it’s worth it, because you know you’re supporting smaller and local businesses.”
One of those local businesses, T-Rex Cookie, belongs to his wife, Tina Rexing. Tina has been selling her mammoth 5-pound cookies on Goldbelly for years. In her Eagan kitchen and warehouse, she keeps a map of the United States with a pin stuck in every city she’s shipped to. She once shipped a cookie to model Chrissy Teigen, who got it as an addition to her Super Bowl party and posted a photo on Instagram. Within 24 hours, 100 new orders came in.
“I just have to print the label,” Tina said. “As a small-business owner, I couldn’t reach those people.”
It’s helped her imagine a bigger future for her company: getting into grocery stores in states where she has cultivated an audience from shipping.
Angel Food Bakery only began shipping nationally last fall. But it’s now the bread and butter of the Minneapolis bakery; both its downtown Minneapolis and airport locations have been closed since the onset of COVID.
“There is, sadly, nobody to open to,” said owner Katy Gerdes. But shipping has “saved our business.”
Early in the pandemic, after closing both shops and letting her staff go, Gerdes thought she alone could handle an average of 10 to 15 orders a day for doughnuts that spell out celebratory messages.
“As soon as travel halted in the states, we skyrocketed,” she said. With most of the nation on lockdown, orders ballooned to 200 a day — 200 boxes of a dozen doughnuts each.
“All of a sudden, you couldn’t have a happy birthday with your kid who was in college. You couldn’t congratulate somebody in person if they got engaged,” Gerdes said.
So, people sent doughnuts.
Like Nick Donato, who lived in St. Louis Park for three years and made a habit of getting sweets from Angel Food Bakery on the weekends. Now he’s living in Iowa and, missing travel to the Twin Cities, he’s shipping the doughnuts to his door. It “has been a little slice of nostalgia,” he said.
Orders like those keep Gerdes going, even if the act of baking for 100 hours a week has made her arms and hands go numb.“ We would not have survived this” without them, she said.
Nadia Cakes credits an influx of online orders for keeping its Woodbury cupcake shop fully staffed during these last lean months. The store, which has become a kind of shipping nerve center, is “close to thriving,” said general manager Erin Campbell. The kitchen makes custom cakes for national customers, plus 62 additional items that are not available on the in-store menu, such as a box of gag cupcakes for April Fools Day that can be purchased online year-round.
One challenge, however, is giving mail-order customers the kind of “immersive” experience they might get if they stepped into the shop. “We have sold the experience for so long of great decor and a friendly team,” Campbell said. “How are you going to transfer that to people all over the country?”
Nadia Cakes staffers throw a few extra treats in the box; T-Rex Cookies sends handwritten notes.
Keeping businesses afloat
Even for businesses that have been shipping from the start, COVID has been a game-changer.
A holiday gifting favorite, Duluth’s Northern Waters Smokehaus sells its smoked fish and meats directly to consumers through its website. Since the pandemic, customers have been treating it more like a grocery delivery service, said mail order director Andy Pearson.
Much of Northern Waters Smokehaus’ orders are coming from within Minnesota and the Midwest. Regulars from the Twin Cities who decided to skip their North Shore trips this year are mailing themselves a Cajun Finn sandwich kit.
“It almost seemed like people went to online shopping because they didn’t want to leave their houses,” Pearson said.
But ordering a sandwich from Duluth or a pizza from Brooklyn comes at a price. Even when companies offer free shipping, it’s still rolled into the cost: $59 for cookies, $79 for doughnuts, $149 for a cake that needs to arrive fresh and perfectly decorated in any weather.
“One thing people don’t think about in the age of Amazon is shipping is not free,” said Tina Rexing.
There’s bubble wrap and dry ice, Styrofoam coolers and layers of cardboard. Packaging that is recyclable or biodegradable, like that used by Northern Waters, costs even more.
And, as with third-party delivery apps that restaurants use to deliver locally, services like Goldbelly take a slice of the profit.
The sheer volume of orders is the trade-off. Nadia Cakes, for example, bakes up about 500 deliveries a week.
“It’s important for people to know that it is a labor of love,” said Campbell, the manager. “There are so many additional steps, so much packaging, it’s a whole different experience. But it’s absolutely helping us stay afloat.”
An emotional connection
Whenever a box of food arrived on my porch from several time zones away, my excitement began to wane as I unpacked ice pack after ice pack. Was this really the best way to feel like I wasn’t still stuck at home?
I tried a few things: a chopped brisket sandwich meal kit from Louie Mueller Barbecue near Austin, Texas, Boston cream pie from the Omni Parker House Hotel, gooey butter cake from Park Avenue Coffee in St. Louis. All were stunningly tasty, and totally new to me. But I had no connection to those places or those foods, and I couldn’t help but feel like I’d done a disservice to the many great Twin Cities barbecue places and bakeries I could have patronized with what I’d spent on shipping.
Much more meaningful were the foods I already knew, and that seemingly knew me. The unmistakable yellow can of chicory coffee from Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, where I once ate beignets on the sidewalk, powdered sugar falling on my shirt. Sourdough from Boudin Bakery that I first tore into at Fisherman’s Wharf during a mother-daughter vacation to San Francisco. Crunchy-edged Sicilian slices from Di Fara Pizza that reminded me of Saturday car rides to Brooklyn to visit my grandma. Tangy sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi from Veselka, the East Village diner where friends and I would come back down to earth after the bars’ 4 a.m. last call.
Like the best Thanksgiving meals, these evocative foods have given me something to be grateful for. My family can’t be at my holiday table, but some of my favorite food memories can, packed snugly in a box with a scoop of dry ice.
Made in Minnesota
Send these favorite tastes from our state to faraway family and friends — or to yourself.
Angel Food Bakery
The Minneapolis bakery has doughnut messages, doughnut cakes, bread pudding and cake jars.
Order 18 flavors of pie from the North Shore.
Three-packs of the famous frozen bar pie, based in Milaca.
April Fools cupcakes, “Vageode” cake, custom orders from the Woodbury bakery.
Northern Waters Smokehaus
The Duluth mainstay ships smoked meat, smoked fish, sandwich kits and holiday gifts.
Pickle pizza and other flavors from Mahtomedi.
Red Wagon Pizza
Pizza four-packs from Minneapolis as seen on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Giant 5-pound cookies and 1/2-pound cookie packs shipped from Eagan.