I also discovered treasures online that are nearly impossible to find anywhere else, even in the best specialty food stores. Anson Mills, for example, sells early-American grains that they grow organically and mill every week. "We started out marketing only to chefs," says Glenn Roberts, the company's founder. Why? In part because the products stay fresh at room temperature for only ten days, something most supermarkets can't accommodate. But the growing cadre of fans have learned to adjust—like the woman I met last summer who devoted half the space in her deep freezer to Anson Mills' flours, a practice that struck me as slightly crazy until I spent a few hours in her kitchen eating graham biscuits hot from her oven.
Another benefit of buying online from places like Anson Mills, Lava Lake Lamb, or Rancho Gordo is that you experience the culture and backstory of a product: where it comes from, who makes it, and how it's made. Add in recipes and evocative pictures—Lava Lake Lamb's sausage sizzling on a skillet over a campfire in the Pioneer Mountains, Rancho Gordo's steamy carne en su jugo—and you quickly find yourself in a kind of closed loop of craving and buying.
Let's say you just like discovering new foods. For that, there are numerous online gourmet shops, places where the selection reflects their owners' keen and experienced palates. Zingerman's is one of the best. Exploring it is a bit like walking through a charming, café-filled town populated by witty, knowledgeable locals. An entry for Welsh sea salts says, "When your guests ask what's for dinner you can answer, 'Chicken and Halen Mor Pur Trwy fwg Derw Cymru!'" Zingerman's forte is not just its selection or its clever prose, however, but its cultishly famous kits, baskets, and care packages. I have friends who won't buy gifts anywhere else. My favorite, the Reuben sandwich kit, is a DIY dinner that arguably stands up to the best that Katz's Delicatessen has to offer.
These specialty-store websites are fun to explore, but if you already know what you want, you're often better off going directly to the producer. Almost every foodmaker in the country will now ship directly to you, typically for much less than the cost of going through a middleman. A pound of Humboldt Fog goat's-milk cheese, ordered off Zingerman's, will run you $35; the same amount from the cheesemaker, Cypress Grove, is $20.
A best-of-both-worlds option is Foodzie, started in 2008 by Emily Olson, a 25-year-old food lover, her computer-science-major fiancé, and their business-major friend. It's a place where small-scale and artisanal foodmakers can market their products directly to consumers. Emily et al. have tasted everything on the site. "Food is hard to judge just by looking at it," she says. "We provide that filter." You the consumer have the benefit of perusing some 1,500 items collected in one virtual place, all of which will be made or packaged to order and shipped straight to you.