It is no small miracle to be alive during an era when it's possible to procure heaps of great food without getting out of bed. If I'd been born during the 99 percent of human history that fell within the hunter-gatherer era, I'd probably be outside right now scouring the wilderness for sustenance that might, if I was lucky, taste like manioc. Instead I live at a time when all I need to do is turn on my computer, push a few buttons, then sit back and wait for the UPS truck to come sailing up my driveway laden with tamales from Tucson or cherry pie from Michigan, all safely nestled among ice packs.
The Internet has changed shopping. Americans spent $130 billion online last year, according to ComScore, an Internet marketing research company. And U.S. Census Bureau data shows that electronic sales of food, wine, and beer have more than tripled since 2002.
The web has also changed the very texture of daily life for anyone who ever moved away from a foodie town, like me. Since leaving New York two years ago, I've been sideswiped by cravings that leave me stunned, hungry, wistful. Mope? No way. I visit Foodzie or Penzeys Spices; I click over to La Quercia or Rancho Gordo, and my longing fades, replaced by this curious new thrill: the pleasure of e-shopping.
It wasn't always like this. At first I believed that there was no way a website could live up to the experience of, say, walking into Murray's Cheese in Greenwich Village and breathing in the complicated dairy tang of 200 cheeses mingled with the siren smell of prosciutto. But once I started clicking around, I discovered sites that aren't just pale simulacra of real-life shopping. The best offer online experiences that are altogether satisfying. Murray's, for example, has a feature called virtual cheesemonger that works like this: You take a quiz and the result matches you with an expert who's as daring as you are, stinky-cheese-wise. His or her personal favorites are listed, along with descriptions like "This is my favorite blue. It has a rich flavor and a little creaminess and a little crumble. I serve it by itself, with pears, or melting on a thick steak." Click—into my shopping basket it goes.