Hot cider and brandy. Check. Stacks of mail-order catalogues rising like geomorphic formations wherever you work and live. Check. Sense of rising dread and an emotional response to the phrase "Black Friday" akin to the phrase "Black Plague" and/or "Black Death." Check. Five stages of despair associated with holiday gifting, including denial and anger, but mostly denial. Check.
It's back. Yes, indeedy. It's back and it knows where to find you because it's already been stalking you since mid-October. F'n'-la-la-la, it's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year again.
And, like every year since 2006, I'm here for you and am willing to sacrifice my own pleasurable pursuits to undertake my Annual Guide to Gifting. This is my 6th Guide and we've come a very long way together. Over the years, we (well, YOU, really...I already know this stuff) have explored the psycho-social nuances of gifting. We have examined prohibitions and excesses and all sorts of ways that holiday gifts can either elevate you to Best Person on the Entire Planet or reduce you to most Likely to Bring Disappointment to People Who Used to Adore You But Can't Stand You Anymore Because Your Presents Suck.
Back then, we (and by "we", I mean "you") were a primitive consumer - Shopper Erectus, if you will, still struggling to purchase crude gifts like the Cute Mugs With and Without Cats (2006), Harry and David Engorged Grapefruit & Pear Boxes (2007), Anything from the Vermont Country Store (2008), Snuggies (2009), and the Toilet Roll iPod Docking Station (2010).
But, each year, we developed a larger gifting intelligence and a keener instinct, able to discern that anything connected to a toilet is a very bad gift (including self-warming toilet seats) and anything related to taking me to Tuscany is a very good gift. In our current evolutionary stage as Shopper Habilis (roughly translated as "shopper with tools"), we are able to approach the holiday shopping cycle like the big-brained consumers we were destined to be.
We have made excellent progress, except, perhaps, in one area that my observations tell me, despite my constant haranguing since 2006, some readers still haven't gotten the hang of - i.e., Cardinal Rule of Gifting No.1. All together now..."NEVER, NEVER, NEVER take along your boyfriend or girlfriend when holiday shopping for your OTHER significant other, be they a wife, husband, or committed life partner." If you have read any, or all, of my previous Gifting Guides (and you certainly should, because they are delightful as well as informative) you know that around 1990, my very ex-husband, Greg, gave me a sequined Mariachi-style jacket in a size 4. I am not a sequin-sort-of-gal, and am no size 4.
The woman of Greg's...ahem...acquaintance and his shopping companion was both. Suffice it to say that chestnuts were roasted on an open fire of hostility for a very long time afterward (and I'm still getting mileage out of that tacky jacket). If you invite this sort of trouble, you cannot expect to be rescued.
And, so...onward to the Season of Joy.
Lucky for all would-be gifters, the Gifting Gods favor us in December and this year I have a handy new word to describe the movement of a class of stuff from relative anonymity to Super Gift status. The word is "trending."
Essentially, there's always tons of potential in the physics of gifting. Some stuff has been around forever, like electric blenders and mixers, and some of it is gadget wizardry like all the cool iStuff that exploded like a supernova onto the market of the last several years. At the onset, no one has an Xbox or iPad or Snuggie or Jacuzzi-Style Footbath and those gifts trend and trend, seemingly forever.
But every market has a saturation point and after awhile, anyone who was ever interested in owning the object does. The tech magicians have to envision a whole new galaxy of potential unmet desire and that takes awhile - decades, even -to prototype the next progression from CD to Discman to MP3.
In the gap, existing and even moth-balled products have an opportunity to find new consumers. Some popular gift items of yesteryear like mink stoles and hot shaving cream dispensers are not likely to trend again. Their time in gift boxes under the tree is past, but sometimes an old standard will find new, if brief, popularity, like Lava Lamps. Other products went out of fashion but were always a great idea, like rain boots, and then came back to trend with a vengeance. A visit to Amazon will show that it's very easy to find the most fabulous array of rubber boots, and they make a dandy gift for all bipeds of any age and any gender who are puddle-challenged.
Another favorite example of trending is the KitchenAide mixer. A standard appliance, ubiquitous in the American kitchen beginning in the early 1950s, it became ever less relevant in the 70s until it became nearly invisible. While it mixes like a dream, its many deficiencies make it an annoying kitchen helper - it's heavy, has only a single function, it takes up precious counter and cabinet space, it needs attention and parts and repair. It was such a hassle to actually drag it out, use it and clean it that while every house had one, it was rarely used and consigned to the same dark closet as the electric skillet, the electric carving knife and the electric slow-cooker.
For years, the mixer went the way of home baking and home cooking. People didn't have much interest in making food at home from scratch, and the trend to instant, frozen, prepared or micro-waveable food made gifting any old-school appliance like a mixer totally unappreciated and for a certain sort of female giftee, even offensive.
But not in 2011. A KitchenAide mixer in any of its glorious colors (I like Tangerine) is a jewel of a gift. Every house delights in owning one; every kitchen would proudly display one. Because, for some years now baking and cooking are trending for both genders. Super cool people buy their meat from a charcuterie, not a butcher's (if they exist any more at all). Trendy people have all studied cuisine and wine and know from where to order the best figs. Cooking, people who cook, celebrity cooks and all of the tools, appliances, specialty food boutiques and wingdings associated with cooking are all wonderfully au currant and highly desirable.
And no cooking niche is too simple or too trailer-park that it cannot be pulled from the gutter and trended, be it bar-b-que or sandwiches.
To prove my point, I was flipping through a Slow-Cooker (read "Crock-Pot") cookbook just yesterday - a blue-collar appliance if there ever was one - and it included a list of necessary ingredients for successful slow cooking. Back when, if you wanted to use your Crock-Pot, you needed to have a can of chicken broth and a can of cream of mushroom soup on hand. I had one recipe for pork roast that had you pour a can of Coke into the pot to simmer for 8 hours (it was pretty good, actually). But slow-cooking is trending with such intensity that I don't recognize it anymore. Gone is the time when you would just throw in a package of French Onion Soup mix, a chunk of beef and a bag of peeled carrots and abandon it to make itself into something edible.
According to my new slow-cooker cookbook, I need to stock "harissa paste", cardamom pods, saffron threads, fennel bulb with the fronds reserved, fenugreek, dried beans (most of which I cannot identify) and have a good source for octopus, veal, dried apricots, preserved lemons and wild game.
Whatever time I used to save dumping all the ingredients into a Crock-pot, turning it on and leaving will now be spent prepping my octopus for the Seafood Stew with Fennel and pheasant hunting.
Trending as a phenomenon isn't just limited to cooking, of course. There's trending in electronics and trending in sports and trending in fashion all going on. But from my lofty gifting perch, both men and women seem to have elevated the act of making food into a sort of sacred ritual. Cooking for both sexes seems to be quite the social adventure and they approach with the intention of becoming not just good cooks, but food priests. It's a lifestyle - a way of looking at the world and expressing personal values.
As a gifting expert, I kind of like this trend. Even if it has its silly vanities and some smug self-absorption among the trendies (“my flour is ground on a stone that used to be in the main circle at Stonehenge” kind of thing), making a meal and feeding yourself and your loved ones is a positive and productive pursuit. It's a good use of time, energy and resources even if we all don't need a personal caramelizing torch, and there's no need to get all snobby about the protein to fat ratio for perfect scrambled eggs (even if it's true and the eggs turn out divine).
So, as an overall category, cookery related gifts have my general approval as gifts that will be used and enjoyed from the $10 olive wood scoop to the $3000 outdoor grill and beyond. In Part 2 of the 2011 Gifting Guide, we will explore the cooking gift option hits-and-misses and how to avoid the outer extremes of this trend. Until then, open your Sur Le Table catalogue and start circling. You won’t go too far wrong, Shopper Habilus.