IN the last week, I have eaten serious crab cakes from Baltimore, barbecue from Texas, cheesecake from Chicago, chili from Cincinnati and lobsters from Boston. My toast has been topped with marionberry jam from Oregon, my salads dressed with cranberry vinaigrette from Seattle. And I'm a little sugar-woozy from Derby-Pie from Kentucky and coconut patties from Florida.
What all those specialties from all around the map have in common, besides their final destination in my kitchen, is their point of origin: All of them are sold in airports.
Hard as it is to believe, the most dreaded places in the country — thanks to flight delays and security hassles — also happen to be sources of excellent local food. And now that travelers are spending more time waiting, the pickings are improving, just in time for peak flying season. Concessionaires in airports are working harder than ever to make connections with local legends such as Legal Sea Foods in Boston and the Salt Lick in Austin, Texas.
Even better, you no longer have to strip down and pass through security to shop for these far-flung flavors. If you are not in the airport, you can buy them over the phone or online, directly from the producers.
Airport gift shops have always been a salvation for procrastinators who find themselves heading home with no gift for relatives or for the cat sitter, or craving one last souvenir from a trip. Candies, mustards and salsas are as common as postcards and coffee mugs. Travelers have also long been able to buy edible souvenirs such as sourdough bread in San Francisco and See's Candies at LAX on the way out of town.
But in the last couple of years, the companies that run the airport shops have made a decided push to stock foods that truly reflect the airport's location rather than just packages of generic goods that wear a city logo. The Dallas-Fort Worth airport even has a wine shop, La Bodega, selling its own vintages produced in Texas hill country.
Thinking local PAT BANDUCCI, senior vice president for business development at HMSHost, which runs food and other retail operations in 70 airports across the country, says the trend is turning back toward local after nearly a decade of emphasizing the "mall-branded" outlets the airports saw as a way to push up revenue while airlines were struggling.
"Airports and landlords now want travelers to know they're in their city," Banducci says. Especially with more of what is euphemistically referred to as "dwell time," as travelers have been forced to arrive at the airport earlier and hang out longer, leaving them susceptible to sausage and chocolates as edible souvenirs.
And so HMSHost has most recently brought 112-year-old Fentons Creamery into the airport in Oakland to scoop rocky road, black walnut, chocolate mint and cookie dough ice creams. And at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport it has opened branches of Ike's, locally loved for its burgers and malts, and Axel's, which aficionados describe as the "Cheers" of the Twin Cities.
The competition, the Paradies Shops, has started opening shops called Marketplaces that carry only local items, edible or not. At the Milwaukee Marketplace, local flavors include Wisconsin sausages, cheeses, wild rice, honey and more. (The airport's food court has a stand selling Usinger bratwurst, which is the sausage standard there.)
Local sensations you can buy in other airports cover the gamut from gimmicky (Big Red microwave popcorn on the cob, the No. 1 seller at the Omaha airport) to the sublime (huckleberry syrup from Your Northwest sold at the Northwest Marketplace at the Portland airport). In Louisville, Ky., airport shops sell Ruth Hunt's truffle-like bourbon balls, redolent of Woodford Reserve booze and each topped with a pecan half, and Kern's trademarked Derby-Pie, an oozy-rich confection filled with chocolate and walnuts. New Orleans has Tabasco shops with a full range of hot stuff, while Paradies Shops in Cincinnati carry Skyline, Gold Star and Cincinnati chili from local chains that are nationally known for their distinctive seasoning (cinnamon is the undertone). Canned chili might not sound tantalizing, but portability is half the allure in an airport when you want to bring a trip back home and just heat and repeat your experiences at table.
Food at the Austin airport is so determinedly local that "we don't even have a Starbucks," the operations manager says. And its Austin Java is such a hit with travelers that some have asked to have the beans shipped to them. The real standout, though, is the airport branch of the Salt Lick, which both sells and ships its outstanding slow-smoked ribs, brisket and spicy sausage.
Boston's best bet is Legal Sea Foods, which ships lobsters either live or cooked, along with other oceanic options and several desserts, including an over-the-top Boston cream pie. And Baltimore has a branch of legendary Obrycki's, which sends its meaty crab cakes nationwide. At Sky Harbor in Phoenix, you can buy pistachios grown in southern Arizona; at the Albuquerque airport, the anise-scented Mexican cookies called bizcochos from Bite Size Bakery are a local temptation.
New finds, old favorites CHEFS are expanding into airports as well. Kathy Casey, who was famous in the '80s at Fuller's in Seattle, now has an outlet of her Dish D'Lish shop at Sea-Tac, where she sells creative condiments such as blueberry-lavender chutney and cranberry vinaigrette, as well as local candies, flavored salts and takeout.
As airports become more specialized with food, though, old favorites seem to hold their own. You can't fly through Tampa or other Florida airports without being tempted by a box of coconut patties, the originals in their retro-looking tins or new flavors such as chocolate-rum.
And change has cut into the fun and flavor. Miami's airport no longer ships stone crabs or Key lime pie because space has gotten so tight there is no room for vendors. Papayas, once a favorite shipment from the Honolulu airport, have gotten too expensive to send to the mainland.
Worse, the new rules forbidding liquids in carry-on bags have taken a toll on shops and food outlets unlucky enough to be located before the security checkpoints. Fiesta Market in Albuquerque no longer sells salsa, a clerk there said, "because people would get so upset that they couldn't take it on the plane." (Once past the TSA disciplinarians, anything goes onboard.)
Ordering directly by phone from airport shops and restaurants can be relatively cheap, but it is not easy — you could find yourself on hold indefinitely while a clerk tends to customers there in person. But luckily, there's always the Internet: Most local foods sold near the runways can be found online, with operators standing by get the food to you faster and smoother.
(Of the dozen and a half foods I ordered online, only one went astray: the Boudin sourdough from San Francisco. It arrived a day late and rubbery despite the $28 overnight shipping charge tacked onto the $13.95 "shipping and handling" fee.)
And though it may seem environmentally insensitive to be shipping food around the country, look at it this way: A Chicago cheesecake has to fly only one way. If you bought it in person, it would be a round trip.
Ribs and lobster on standby
OF the dozen and a half "airport foods" I had shipped to me, these were first-class. All can be bought in the airport in their hometowns. And most would make excellent gifts.
Smoked out of Austin: The Salt Lick's barbecue is exceptional, truly Texan even when packed to travel, with deeply smoky flavor and seriously tender meat. The "family-style dinner" comprises a rack of pork ribs, a slab of juicy beef brisket, a generous hunk of spicy smoked sausage and a jar of sauce for $94.95 plus shipping from saltlickbbq.com. Reheating instructions are spot-on; it all tastes fresh from the smoker. (888) 725-8542.
Logan, the raw and the cooked: Lobsters from Legal Sea Foods in Boston can be shipped live or steamed; I opted for the latter and was rewarded with two that were far better than I have ever had closer to home: very fresh, very meaty and cooked to succulence rather than rubber. Oyster crackers, a plastic bib, metal crackers, a lemon and one inadequate Wet-Nap come along for the ride. Two weighing about 1 1/4 pounds each are $73.95 plus overnight shipping from shop.legalseafoods.com. (800) EAT-FISH.
Baltimore home runs: Obrycki's Maryland-style crab cakes are little softballs of mostly crab with very little filler, and they reheat beautifully. Because they arrive frozen, though, they need a sauce to moisten them. Six are $69.95 plus overnight shipping from obryckis.com. (410) 732-6399.
Portland harvest: Columbia Empire Farms' huckleberry syrup ($9.95) and marionberry all-fruit fruit spread from Oregon ($5.95) have clean, assertive fruit flavors and are just sweet enough. The jam is excellent on whole-grain toast, and the syrup will make you wish for a waffle maker if you don't own one. It would also be good sweetening a summer cocktail. http://www.yournw.com . (888) 252-0699.
O'Hare sweet: Eli's cheesecake, the legacy of a legendary Chicago steakhouse that closed after 39 years, is a model of heartland richness, creamy and smooth with just enough crumbly crust. I ordered the combination, with slices of plain, strawberry, chocolate and "candy bar," but plain was simply the best. $28 plus overnight shipping from elischeesecake.com. (800) ELI-CAKE.
Sea-Tac sensations: Dish D'Lish bottles condiments you won't taste just anywhere. The cranberry vinaigrette is tangy and full-flavored enough to make you overlook the peculiar pink color, and the blueberry-lavender chutney is lively, with excellent fruit flavor. Each is $6.99 plus shipping from kathycasey.com. (206) 789-8121.
Memphis meaty: Jim Neely's Interstate Barbecue is renowned for its ribs and pulled pork, but I was most taken with the barbecue baked beans — they were packed with flecks of smoky meat and were not teeth-aching sweet. The ribs almost melted off the bone when reheated, but they were not as astonishing as Salt Lick's. A gift pack of the three plus a bottle of sauce is $65 plus shipping from jimneelysinterstatebarbecue.com. (888) 227-2793.
Cincinnati heat: Skyline Chili comes in a can, but if you have never had the real deal it is worth trying it to understand how the local addition of cinnamon in the seasoning makes it distinctive rather than weird. The beef is not ground but is in small chunks, and it is less greasy than the Gold Star brand I also tried. I ordered from an airport gift shop (767-5722) and paid $4.99 plus $7 shipping for a 15-ounce can, but cincinnatifavorites.com sells it in large quantities. (877) 246-2999.
Retro in Florida: Friends who are addicted to "corny" regional treats raved about the coconut patties sold in most Florida airports, and they are worth the cavities. Thick slabs of soft coconut candy are coated on one side with dark chocolate, like hatless Mounds bars. Coco Rhumbies, a new version made with cocoa and rum, are less sweet but still irresistible. Each package weighs 8 ounces; the originals in a retro tin are $4.50 and the Rhumbies in a cool box are $3.75, plus shipping, from anastasiaconfections.com. (407) 816-9944 or (800) 329-7100.
Louisville winner: Derby-Pie, the semiofficial dessert of Kentucky, is the one commercial pie I would order over and over. Essentially a pecan pie made with walnuts plus semisweet chocolate, it is as rich and gooey as candy and has a perfect short crust. All it needs is a run through the oven to warm it up. It's $13.99 plus shipping from http://www.kygourmet.com . (800) 444-0552.
Logan liftoff: Risking a diabetic coma, I also ordered Legal Sea Foods' version of Boston cream pie, which is a less-traditional version with more custard and chocolate than cake. I ate it cold, but it can be heated so that the chocolate melts into total overkill. Two — enough to feed four — are $10.95 plus overnight shipping from shop.legalseafoods.com. (800) EAT-FISH.
Sky Harbor shelling: Arizona pistachios are big, fat and meaty, but the packaging turned out to be half the appeal. I bought 2 pounds in a tall glass jar with a Hohokum motif — an evocative souvenir of my home state without a flight through Phoenix. $17.99 plus shipping from azpistachio.com. (800) 333-8575.
— Regina Schrambling