IN the last week, I have eaten serious crab cakes from Baltimore, barbecue from Texas, cheesecake from Chicago, chili from Cincinnati and lobsters from Boston. My toast has been topped with marionberry jam from Oregon, my salads dressed with cranberry vinaigrette from Seattle. And I'm a little sugar-woozy from Derby-Pie from Kentucky and coconut patties from Florida.
What all those specialties from all around the map have in common, besides their final destination in my kitchen, is their point of origin: All of them are sold in airports.
Hard as it is to believe, the most dreaded places in the country -- thanks to flight delays and security hassles -- also happen to be sources of excellent local food. And now that travelers are spending more time waiting, the pickings are improving, just in time for peak flying season. Concessionaires in airports are working harder than ever to make connections with local legends such as Legal Sea Foods in Boston and the Salt Lick in Austin, Texas.
Even better, you no longer have to strip down and pass through security to shop for these far-flung flavors. If you are not in the airport, you can buy them over the phone or online, directly from the producers.
Airport gift shops have always been a salvation for procrastinators who find themselves heading home with no gift for relatives or for the cat sitter, or craving one last souvenir from a trip. Candies, mustards and salsas are as common as postcards and coffee mugs. Travelers have also long been able to buy edible souvenirs such as sourdough bread in San Francisco and See's Candies at LAX on the way out of town.
But in the last couple of years, the companies that run the airport shops have made a decided push to stock foods that truly reflect the airport's location rather than just packages of generic goods that wear a city logo. The Dallas-Fort Worth airport even has a wine shop, La Bodega, selling its own vintages produced in Texas hill country.
PAT BANDUCCI, senior vice president for business development at HMSHost, which runs food and other retail operations in 70 airports across the country, says the trend is turning back toward local after nearly a decade of emphasizing the "mall-branded" outlets the airports saw as a way to push up revenue while airlines were struggling.
"Airports and landlords now want travelers to know they're in their city," Banducci says. Especially with more of what is euphemistically referred to as "dwell time," as travelers have been forced to arrive at the airport earlier and hang out longer, leaving them susceptible to sausage and chocolates as edible souvenirs.
And so HMSHost has most recently brought 112-year-old Fentons Creamery into the airport in Oakland to scoop rocky road, black walnut, chocolate mint and cookie dough ice creams. And at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport it has opened branches of Ike's, locally loved for its burgers and malts, and Axel's, which aficionados describe as the "Cheers" of the Twin Cities.
The competition, the Paradies Shops, has started opening shops called Marketplaces that carry only local items, edible or not. At the Milwaukee Marketplace, local flavors include Wisconsin sausages, cheeses, wild rice, honey and more. (The airport's food court has a stand selling Usinger bratwurst, which is the sausage standard there.)
Local sensations you can buy in other airports cover the gamut from gimmicky (Big Red microwave popcorn on the cob, the No. 1 seller at the Omaha airport) to the sublime (huckleberry syrup from Your Northwest sold at the Northwest Marketplace at the Portland airport). In Louisville, Ky., airport shops sell Ruth Hunt's truffle-like bourbon balls, redolent of Woodford Reserve booze and each topped with a pecan half, and Kern's trademarked Derby-Pie, an oozy-rich confection filled with chocolate and walnuts. New Orleans has Tabasco shops with a full range of hot stuff, while Paradies Shops in Cincinnati carry Skyline, Gold Star and Cincinnati chili from local chains that are nationally known for their distinctive seasoning (cinnamon is the undertone). Canned chili might not sound tantalizing, but portability is half the allure in an airport when you want to bring a trip back home and just heat and repeat your experiences at table.
Food at the Austin airport is so determinedly local that "we don't even have a Starbucks," the operations manager says. And its Austin Java is such a hit with travelers that some have asked to have the beans shipped to them. The real standout, though, is the airport branch of the Salt Lick, which both sells and ships its outstanding slow-smoked ribs, brisket and spicy sausage.