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Commentary & Opinion

Christmas catalogues deserve some respect

Much has been made of the demise of print journalism. People get their news these days on their computers or phones. Sadly, I’m one of them. If you’d told me a dozen years ago, or even half that number, that uncorking the print version of the New York Times wouldn’t one day be as integral a part of my morning as freshly squeezed orange juice, I’d have said you were nuts.

But I no longer read the physical New York Times, unless my wife buys it. She typically does so only on Sundays. My excuse is that news is supposed to be new and you can’t get it any fresher off the now, mostly metaphorical press, than over the Times app.

Something invaluable is lost in the process – for example, the serendipity of leafing through a newspaper and getting waylaid by a compelling story you hadn’t intended on reading in the first place. With a device you’re curating your own news content if only by making the willful decision to click on this or that article. In the process something is sacrificed. You may, literally, not know what you’re missing.

However, there’s a print product that thus far seems to have avoided the fate of journalism, if my overstuffed mailbox is any indication: Christmas catalogues. And probably for good reason. Shopping online, or rather window shopping online, simply doesn’t provide the same sedentary excitement of leisurely poring through a holiday catalogue, preferably by a crackling fire and, with one’s free hand, the assistance of a smoky single malt.

I would be prepared to feel guilty that my indulgences are contributing unnecessarily to the razing of forests, despite the fact that I recycle religiously, because a catalogue rarely compels me to buy something from its pages. But I suppose that’s almost the point, from my selfish point of view. The pleasure’s vicarious. It comes from desiring something but not following through. You receive a momentary spark of ownership without incurring any of the cost or contributing, down the road, to your local landfill. What could be more environmentally friendly than that? How much less would we buy and spend if we had to fill out a form, or pick up a phone, as we once did, rather than simply click on the item?

What triggered these ruminations were a couple of catalogues I settled by the fire with on a recent evening. L.L. Bean’s holiday mailer and the Vermont Country Store’s. Nothing seriously tempted me in the Bean catalogue, at least not seriously enough to consummate a purchase. Well, perhaps their 11-wale Country Cords. It’s hard to find corduroy pants where the wale isn’t too thick or too thin. But how do you know until you try them on? The risks seemed to outweigh the rewards and I took a pass.

Where I got seriously triggered was on the Vermont Country Store’s page devoted to petit fours. The Vermont Country Store trafficks in the conceits of tradition, common sense and usefulness. I know. Where, you might reasonably ask, do petit fours fit into that pantheon? Or, for that matter, liquor-filled chocolate bottles? The 127-page catalogue devotes, in full or part, five pages to those confections. That may, or may not, say something about the average customer’s concept of dessert.

Apparently, the catalogue’s message, if indeed it possesses one, is that you shouldn’t have to apologize for your passion for retro treats such as petit fours and dark chocolate Remy Martin cognac filled bottles. As you’d assume, they also have fruitcake covered, with nine different varieties.

I couldn’t agree more with their “Purveyors of the practical and hard-to-find” business model. I’m not suggesting that petit fours are going the way of the stegosaurus. But they seem far less popular than they once were. I don’t know if that’s because we’ve been browbeaten into believing refined sugar is a bad thing, or because the Austrian and Hungarian refugees that brought their petit-four making skills to our shores just before and after World War II long ago went to their reward. Sadly, many of them they took the bakeries where I bought my petit fours as a child along with them. It’s hard to conceive of a more perfect dopamine delivery system.

If you’ll permit me to wallow in nostalgia for a brief moment, there was a café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, appropriately called Éclair, that sold diamond shaped petit fours in pastels as well as chocolate and mocha. By the way, since when did mocha go out of style? The flavor used to be almost as ubiquitious as chocolate or vanilla. But that’s for another commentary.

On the Upper East Side Bonté, a French bakery, made a petit four unsurpassed in both its delicacy and flavor. And a couple of blocks further east Rigo sold a vanilla fondant coated marzipan petit four that could only be described as carnal.

I suppose it was those memories that made the Vermont Country Store’s 5-Layer two-bite petit fours so tempting. Especially the bittersweet chocolate truffle cream petit four that comes in the Original 12-cake box. In the end, I didn’t place an order. I’m not saying I won’t eventually. But if there’s anything shorter than the half-life of an isotope it’s a petit four’s. It’s hard to imagine that, no matter that how artfully packaged, a mail order petit four can taste as fresh as one bought in person from a first-class bakery. Then again, good luck finding a bakery that sells them. At least for the moment, I’m prepared to keep trying.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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