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Regional flavors may be a click away

By Kat Kinsman, Special to CNN
The regional flavors you grew up with may be available for a price on the Internet.
The regional flavors you grew up with may be available for a price on the Internet.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some regional treats are a comforting taste of home if you live elsewhere
  • These include boiled peanuts from the South, New Jersey's pork rolls, Ohio's chili
  • Some online venders will ship regional favorites to your door
RELATED TOPICS
  • Foods
  • Southern States
  • Websites

(CNN) -- Hungry for the comforting food you grew up with? Thanks to some enterprising online retailers, your favorite regional flavors may be just a click away.

Cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee now split their time between New York and their childhood hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. But adjusting to the Big Apple wasn't easy at first for the two brothers.

During their first New York winter in 1994, the Lee brothers suffered from serious twinges of homesickness. They sought solace in a childhood favorite -- the unroasted, saltwater-boiled peanuts sold by roadside vendors back home.

After procuring 50 pounds of raw peanuts from a Bronx produce market, they set a portion to boiling in a stockpot on the stove.

"Within minutes of our return, the apartment began to fill with steam that smelled like hay, sweet potatoes and tea; about eight hours later, we were cracking the peanut shells, with brine running over our hands, and slurping the nuts down," the two wrote in their James Beard Award-winning "The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook" (W.W. Norton & Co.).

The heavenly taste of the peanuts transported them home.

"Their earthy, beanlike flavor, in that cramped room overlooking the heroin dealers and hipsters on Ludlow Street, conjured up the creek banks and marshes south of Charleston. The feeling of having cheated geography through food was exhilarating," they wrote.

A legume-selling obsession began as the brothers sought to share the special treat. The Lees took to the streets -- and then a printed catalog and eventually set up a website, boiledpeanuts.com -- selling the peanuts and other regional staples such as sorghum molasses, pickled artichokes and watermelon rind and stone-ground grits to displaced Southerners all over the country.

But the South hardly has a corner on marketing to hometown appetites in other states.

A server at the Who's On Third Deli & Grill in Spring Lake, New Jersey, was recently overheard advising a former native about where to buy the region's signature processed ham, known as pork roll.

Said she, "I know there's a website that sells it to people who miss it. Wish I'd thought of that -- I'd make a million dollars."

She'd have to woo customers away from other pork roll online providers such as Jersey Boy Pork Roll, House of Pork Roll and Jersey Pork Roll -- all of which cater to the tastes of transplanted Garden Staters, with the latter offering East Coast favorites such as Tastykake and Drake's snack cakes, Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy and Sabrett's hot dogs.

The website hones hunger pangs with a page sharing loyal patrons' memories of Taylor Pork Roll.

Grateful customer Lynn Cruse of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, remembers her family's yearly stop at Atlantic City's Taylor Pork Roll booth.

"Dad, a connoisseur of all delicious foods, felt the experience was worth the expense. We would each get a sandwich and I remember eating it as slowly as I could, savoring each delicious bite, knowing the memory of the sandwich would have to last a whole year. Although my dad passed several years ago, when I savor one of your delicious pork roll sandwiches, I feel him with me."

Soda fans misty for New England's classic Moxie, Kentucky's Ale-8-1 or Michigan favorite Vernors Ginger Ale can get their fix via Virginia Beach-based online retailer, the aptly named The Hard To Find Grocer.

The company, founded in 1996, specializes in regional favorites that traditional grocery stores might not sell enough of to justify shelf room. As the physical space is a warehouse not open to the public, there's plenty of room for New Orleans' Zatarain's Creole Mustard and Greenville, South Carolina's Duke's Mayonnaise -- an essential in many Southern recipes -- alongside pickles from Toledo's Tony Packo's and Rhode Island's indigenous coffee syrup Autocrat.

Devotees of particular products can either click over to aggregators of regional products, such as cincinnatifavorites, cajungrocer, tastesofchicago, newyorkfirst or themississippigiftcompany or go straight to the source.

Classic brands such as North Carolina's Cheerwine soft drink and Chattanooga Bakery's MoonPie, both established in the early 1900s, have embraced online marketing and selling to keep up with the demands of their widespread clientele.

And these indulgences come at a price. Often, small producers cannot ship throughout the entire year -- for instance vendors of Buffalo's Sponge Candy cannot subject their delicate, heat-sensitive delicacy to higher temperatures throughout the summer -- or must tack on shipping charges that may be equal or higher than the items being shipped. Still, homesick eaters are more than willing to shell out for their beloved treats.

"Nostalgia is a major ingredient, and then the comforting effect that familiar foods have on the psyche. We tend to take the flavors of our upbringing for granted until we move away -- then they become priceless experiences," Ted Lee told CNN.

Some favorite dishes don't translate to those who didn't grow up treasuring them.

This writer's husband was less than impressed by the the traditional Cincinnati-style, Greek-influenced Skyline Chili she'd ordered online and served as a "Four Way" with cheese and onions over spaghetti, while she blanches at the sugar shock of his beloved North Carolina sweet tea.

But that's not the end of the world. It just means you won't have to share your favorites.

 
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