By Thane Peterson A few years ago, I was invited to a fancy Manhattan lunch for 150 or so to showcase the cooking of a famous chef from France on book tour. I was just a humble BusinessWeek news editor at the time, but by some mistake I wound up at the head table with the great chef and some of the nation's top food critics.
I remember one thing clearly through the champagne-induced haze of that long afternoon. Though the chef had brought all the food with him from France, apparently believing American vegetables and meats weren't up to his standards, the distinguished food critics agreed his best dish was the only one made from local ingredients -- a foie gras from a Newark, N.J., mail-order outfit called d'Artagnan.
As the holidays approach, I've been thinking about that lunch because you can easily order the foie gras that wowed those food critics online at www.dartagnan.com, or by calling 1 800-dartagnan (1 800 327-8246). A little 0.25-ounce block of the fanciest stuff -- goose foie gras -- costs $44.55. But a hefty 1.5-pound mousse of less expensive duck foie gras goes for only $67.50.
BOAR FOR DINNER? If goose liver isn't your thing, d'Artagnan sells everything from truffles to Texas wild boar. And you can have your order air-shipped on ice anywhere in the U.S. for $22, or for free if you spend more than $200. You'll need to place your order several days in advance of your planned meal.
The point is, why give boring gifts like striped neckties and scented soap, or chow down on supermarket turkey, when it's so easy to come up with something more imaginative? If nothing else, a nice saddle of wild boar ($163.50) for Christmas dinner would be a conversation starter, wouldn't it? I've put together a list of other offbeat items available online that might liven up your holidays a bit.
Here's a hot tip if you're looking for a good gift for a wine lover or if you just want wine to accompany your holiday meals: Try logging onto eBay. Yup, eBay. The auction giant, which in 1999 banned the sale of alcoholic beverages on its site, is quietly testing wine auctions in conjunction with two California Internet wine merchants, Winetasting.com and New Wine Logistics.
FEW BIDDERS. If the test goes well, a spokesman says, eBay may once again start selling wine (and perhaps even liquor and beer) on its site. Because the trial run has just started, bidders are still scarce. But that also gives you a chance to bag some bargains. When I checked on Nov. 18, very few bids were made on a wine auction set to end Nov. 20.
There were no bids at all for a 12-bottle case of 1996 Sparkling Wine from J Wine, a wonderful California winery, with a retail value of about $350. The minimum starting bid was $210. And no bidders yet appeared for a 12-bottle case of 1981 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon Cabernet, which has a retail value of $1,200 and a starting bid of $500, or for a half-case of 1995 Niebaum-Coppola Cabernet, with a retail value of $660 and starting bid of $375.
Of course, serious bidding on eBay usually takes place just before the auction ends, and there's no way to know what price the wines would eventually attract. You can follow the action on eBay by clicking on "Home and Garden," then "Food and Beverage," then "Wine."
QUEUE THE MOVIES. For wines being sold by Winetasting.com, check the retail price-per-bottle to make sure you're not bidding too much when you check into the company's Web site at www.winetasting.com. One caveat: Many states don't allow online wine sales, so be sure to examine the list of eligible states before you do your shopping.
Moving away from food and drink, a good gift for a serious movie lover might be a subscription to Netflix (www.netflix.com), a California company that rents DVDs by mail. I've been testing this service since early this year (after a six-month free trial, I'm now a paying customer), and it's pretty cool. For $19.95 a month, you can check out three DVDs at a time from a selection of more than 10,000. For $13.95 a month, you can get two DVDs at a time, while $39.95 a month lets you check out eight at once.
Here's how it works. You browse the Web site and create a queue of movies you want to see. Netflix mails your first batch of DVDs, along with postage-paid return mailers for each one. Once you're done with a movie, you drop it in the mail and the company sends the next one in your queue.
There's no deadline for returning the DVDs, but you won't get a new one until you send one back. If one gets lost in the mail, Netflix sends another for free. (This happened to me, and the company sent a new one right away.)
PLAN AHEAD. Why bother? Netflix has a much bigger DVD selection than most video stores, especially ones in small towns, and DVDs give you a much better image than videocassettes. While Netflix has all the big-name Hollywood fare, I've also rented some pretty obscure documentaries and Asian movies I otherwise couldn't have found.
If you're a procrastinator, it's great not to have to pay late fees. But the disadvantage is you have to plan ahead. It usually takes a week or so for an order to arrive. Netflix isn't much of a deal for occasional movie-renters, since you have to order a lot of DVDs for the price to be competitive with the $2-$3 per movie most video stores charge.
If you have a photography buff on your gift list, you might consider buying a print from www.eyestorm.com. This site, with its philosophy of bringing great art to the masses, is controversial among serious art collectors. It has commissioned well-known artists and photographers to make signed editions of their work at relatively affordable prices. The catch: There's anywhere from 100 to 500 copies of each work, rather than just a few.
ONLINE GRAB BAG. Still, you can collect some of the best 30- and 40-something photographers in the world -- like San Francisco-based Richard Misrach, London-born Susan Derges, or Samuel Fosso from Cameroon -- at prices ranging from $300 to $730. You can also get signed prints of famous images by well-known older photographers, like Sebastiao Salgado and Elliott Erwitt, for just $500, a fraction of what a limited-edition print costs.
My last suggestion is to buy original art or crafts online. A real grab bag of a Web site is www.guild.com, based in Madison, Wis., which has an enormous selection -- from pricey original prints by established artists and photographers to jewelry, ceramics, furniture, and knickknacks from little-known artists, often for under $100. One of this year's top-sellers is a little pink-glass pig Christmas ornament from glassblower Phyllis Clarke for $32.
Another site that features work by many little-known artists, sculptors, and photographers at affordable prices is www.nextmonet.com. It's sometimes hard to get a good idea of a piece from the fuzzy pictures on Web sites. But if you find something you like on one of these sites, I tend to think it's preferable to buying a reproduction from a museum catalog. And you'll be supporting a struggling artist or craftsperson's career. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online