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Good things come in small packages

I don't remember where we kids found the glossy, hypercolored publication that year -- maybe in one of the bathrooms, where my father could lock the door and study the lurid photos in relative privacy; maybe in the living room, where we had tugged it out from underneath more innocent periodicals. Clearly it had been too easy for a pack of impressionable young children to get its hands on that suggestive piece of literature, that trash, that catalog from Hickory Farms.

I'm not making fun of Hickory Farms, although a lot of people do these days, perhaps because of the food company's mall outreach program. It's also true that we are living in a postMartha Stewart era, when people may find themselves feeling inferior about not growing their own food gifts from seed and weaving the baskets to hold them. But back in the day, and back in the 'hood, that Hickory Farms catalog still held some allure, with its exotically wrapped boxes filled with vacuum-sealed Americana.

The suggestive abundance of the food styling is really what did us in. Do you remember the Ghost of Christmas Present, how he sits in the middle of a feast, holding an overflowing cup, the sturdy legs of his throne planted right in the middle of an ocean of edibles? That's how we felt when we looked through the catalog, with its seemingly endless array of foods that we'd never had before; Chili-flavored popcorn; beef salami, smoked 10 different ways to Sunday; rosy-cheeked rows of nectarines; Smoked salmon; and -- this is what clinched it as a source of goodies for Dad -- cheese. Rolled in pecans, smoked and basted, speckled with cumin, saturated with red food coloring and called port-wine cheese. Confronted with such dairy delights, we knew we had found The One.

I mean, this gift marked the first time I can remember wanting to give something that actually took into consideration another person's tastes. No ashtrays, no handprints in plaster (anyway, with seven kids there simply wasn't enough room for all those tchotchkes). No suggestions from teachers or the other parent, in other words. This catalog was something we came to on our own, something that we thought of specifically and were utterly convinced of its rightness.

Having figured out the right source for this perfect gift, actually choosing it was a different story -- so much fun! We fingered the pages for weeks, hiding it under pillows and behind books.

I remember the leisurely consultations, barricaded in one bedroom or another, debating the merits of the various presentations. What about this box, with its assortment of jam in jars that were small enough to be depleted by two pieces of toast. But what about the basket there with the five kinds of cheddar spread? Oh, it was an arduous process. We were young, and it was not easy to determine the differences between each gift container. We kept being driven to distraction by the pictures.

In some ways we were ideal Hickory Farms consumers: gullible and hungry for visuals. We were, however, completely outside of the income demographic: We had none. So where did we get the money? Sofa cushions, soda cans, a few odd jobs, I think. At some point we must have accepted the fact that we were never going to be able to afford that glamorous Hamper o' Ham, or we just ran out of spending power. At that point we took our money to Mom, who of course had known all along what we were up to, and got her to write the check.

The box took forever to arrive, and when it did it seemed strangely anticlimactic. It was small, smaller than it looked in the catalog, and wrapped simply, though with much better corners than my 10-year-old fingers could produce. Mom wrapped it up for us in an opaque plastic bag and hid it in the refrigerator for us, poking it behind the butter bin. Every time I opened the door and didn't see it, I had a little tremor of terror -- that Dad had found it already or someone had stolen it.

But no, on Christmas Day, by the time we kids had scrambled and screamed our way out to the tree, that careful little package was tucked into the heap of presents. I remember that Christmas as one time when I actually was almost as interested in what someone else was opening as what I was opening.

As soon as he saw the Hickory Farms logo, he got all excited. We stood around as he ripped open the box. A rush of green Easter-basket grass fell out, and there to our wondering eyes appeared the object of our four months of work: two beef sticks, three small blocks of cheese, and a few pieces of strawberry candy. We looked at each other -- was this what we expected? -- and looked at him. Was this what he wanted? His smile, an unusual appearance on his stern face, told us enough. Also the fact that he was already standing up to get his knife and a little plate.

Five minutes later we each timidly picked slim pieces of cheese and sausage off the plate that he offered us. We were hungry, as Christmas dinner was still hours and hours away. But we instinctively knew to leave him most of the slices, which he ate slowly, one by one, from his sturdy chair in front of the tree.

Marina Wolf is a California-based food and feature writer. Hickory Farms kiosks are located at both the Chapel Hills mall and The Citadel mall.

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