Delivering the Goods

N ext to the insta-pot on my kitchen counter sits a one-and-a-half-pound bag of Jimmy Red Grits and a silver box about the size of a wallet labeled “Zamburiñas Guisadas”—scallops in sauce. I’m ready for my mid-pandemic Zoom call with East Rock entrepreneur Ben Simon, whose new business, Ben to Table, aims to bring both pantry essentials and international delicacies to its customers’ doorsteps each month.

The food came direct to my door in a bag carried by Simon himself; normally, customers receive their deliveries by mail in cardboard boxes with a logo of the bespectacled Simon peeking over the edge. They can choose from a monthly Essentials Box ($59.99) containing pantry fundamentals such as “heirloom grains, pastas, beans, grits, and flours from hard-to-find producers,” the Ben to Table website promises; a Delicacies Box (also $59.99) delivering an array of unique ingredients themed to a different country or region each month; or the flagship Ben to Table Box ($114.99), combining both. Each shipment generally contains five or six items, and a vegetarian version is also offered.

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Instead of providing every single ingredient needed for a particular meal like some food delivery subscriptions, Ben to Table boxes simply come with a few suggestions for preparation, with more ideas available on the company blog. Simon hopes his subscribers will be inspired to experiment for themselves. “The general cooking style that I’ve always personally practiced and that I am, I guess, low-key evangelizing for is one that is less recipe-bound and more technique-driven,” Simon says. He hopes to encourage people to experiment—“to think, ‘Oh, these things go well with this, these flavors will work. Let’s try it.’”

However, faced with an unadventurous cook like yours truly, Simon is happy to provide some instruction for making grits. At our respective homes, we fire up our insta-pots. Following Simon’s lead, I drop a pad of butter in to coat the bottom of mine, then pour in a cup and a half of grits with six and a half cups of water. (Later, we decide six cups would have done the trick.) I stir it all up with a generous pinch of salt, and Simon does the same in his kitchen a few miles away. Then we chat as the pots sputter.

A former international campaigns consultant for organizations like Greenpeace, Simon has traveled the world, enjoying local cuisines along the way. When working on the issue of sustainable agriculture, he saw the need to “scale solutions, to help people who are doing good things find more customers… We want current seeds of sustainable agriculture to become dominant, but you can’t do that if it’s just in little pockets.” With Ben to Table, Simon hopes to boost the demand for “things produced well.”

Simon chooses his products “company by company and box by box.” He begins with an idea of what he wants, then goes out to find it. For example, for January’s Delicacies Box, which focused on Mexico, Simon knew he wanted a good molé paste, interesting spices, some white hominy and some cuitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn. Usually, cuitlacoche—also known as “corn smut” or, more appetizingly, “Mexican truffles”—has to be fresh or it’s not very good, he says. “You can find some that are frozen that are okay, you can find some in cans, which tend to be—not good,” he says with a laugh. Finally, one producer stocked by one wholesaler in the US seemed promising. Simon ordered a vacuum-packed sample and a jarred one. The vacuum-packed cuitlacoche didn’t pass Simon’s taste test, “but the jarred version was pretty tasty, so I was like, ‘Cool! I found my cuitlacoche!’”

This firsthand research process sounds promising, but I’m still not confident of what I’ll find when I peel back the tin lid of the scallops, the other sample Simon has dropped off for me. Tinned fish—“conservas,” to foodies—gets an unfair rep, Simon says. “You think of the sort of sad can of sardines that your grandpa had at the back of his cabinet… [but] they take the best seafood of the catch, not the worst, and take great care in how it’s prepared and how it’s preserved, and you can tell.”
The tiny scallops in my conservas are bathed in a sauce of olive oil, tomato, onion, red pepper, wine, salt and spices. They’re tender and mouthwateringly delicious. I realize that, if I can stop eating them right out of the package, they’ll be perfect, as Simon suggests, with some pasta later. While I eat a few of my scallops, on the other end of our call, Simon helps himself to a tin of cockles packed in “this really tasty, briny thing.”

Finally, it’s time to release the valves on our pots. I wait for the steam to escape, then open the lid, releasing an earthy aroma of corn. “When I first started making these, I would load them up with… cheddar and olive oil and salt and pepper and stuff and was pretty unimpressed,” Simon says. “And then I just started doing them very plain like this and found that I got a lot more of the… interesting corn flavor that was otherwise getting subsumed by all the fixings.”

Good as these grits and scallops are (you could even try them together), Simon knows Ben to Table’s price tag isn’t for everyone. But he’s confident the cost is worth it for high-quality, unique, sustainably produced food that’s conveniently curated and delivered. At a time when we’re all stuck at home, the appeal is even more evident, he points out, not only because new ingredients show up every month but also because it’s a way to support small producers who are currently struggling.

One told him that “85% of orders dried up overnight because so much of their business was supplying restaurants, mostly in California.” Some food producers who’ve relied on restaurants for most of their business are trying to shift to direct-to-consumer now, he says. “I see this as helping move that along in terms of getting these products in more people’s homes and also helping to avoid the grocery store pileup.” On the other hand, one bean producer said their product was completely sold out in the rush to hoard non-perishable protein. Simon plans to include flour, another item that’s been scarce of late, in next month’s box.

There’s nothing scarce about this afternoon’s snack. After Simon and I say goodbye, I fill up a bowl with grits and drizzle half a spoonful of honey over them, a comforting treat in an uncomfortable time.

Ben to Table
info@bentotable.com
www.bentotable.com

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 and 4, featuring Ben Simon, photographed by Meghan Olson for Ben to Table. Images 2 and 3 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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