I know, I know. This would have been a lot more helpful two weeks ago, and I apologize. While I know I am almost unforgivably late in offering Part Deux of my gifting dos and don'ts for 2011, perhaps you can still make last minute corrections if you bought anyone anything from www.smashinggadgets.com (particularly, the Corn Kernel Cutter...it's just...well...disturbing). Or, maybe you are so hopelessly behind in your holiday gifting that you have not even begun. In which case, my advice is a lifesaver in a gifting crisis.
Onward, then, with vigor.
In Part One I of my 2011 Gifting Guide, I suggested that cooking knick-knackery was the trending gift of 2011. Hip Americans seemed to have embraced food preparation as their newest religious expression, and where there is faith, there is consumption. But as someone named Rob Jones blogged: "The industrial revolution brought with it many machines and inventions that took formerly tedious tasks and made them easy.
For decades, we enjoyed all of the conveniences that this innovation has offered, but now we're just showboating." At the website is a gallery of 10 of the weirdest, most outlandish kitchen utensils and "proof that we're getting bored with the basics and making things simply because we can."
Is anyone on your gift list really going to love a pair of pizza scissors, or a toaster that imprints images of everything from a smiley face to the logo of your favorite hockey team or alma mater? Is humanity better off being able to boil a square egg? Can you really enjoy a knife block in the shape of a human head sitting in your kitchen, giving you the creeps every time you pull out your cleaver?
I refer you to those websites and implore you to steer clear of novelty - a great gift is one that is totally useful and of good quality. This ranges from a lovely linen dish towel at $5 to a hand carved olive wood spoon or a Le Creuset anything at all. Spend a little or spend a lot, but in the hands of the right giftee, a great wine puller or a solid mixing bowl is a joy for many years to come.
So, what do I like to see on a gift list? I like Real Things, for one. I miss the sun, so I asked Santa for an indoor lemon tree. I also like things that have surpassed durable and moved into the realm of almost indestructible.
People who have traveled with me have pointed out that I tend to pick the very heaviest souvenir that I can find, buy it, and then drag it around doggedly for several weeks and through several airports. I admit there was that concrete mortar and pestle in Thailand that I just couldn't live without, and that I do seem to admire objects with bulk. So, perhaps it is no surprise that I already own and highly recommend the Lodge Cast Iron Wok for your giftee.
This is an implement that will last for many generations and, probably, past the annihilation of the universe. When I use this wok, I am filled with a Cartesian sense of cooking purpose - that is, "I cook, therefore we eat."
It's got some serious industrial-strength mass, but a cook need never worry that it can’t take either high heat or rough handling. The wok will move from a stove to a grill to a camp fire to an oven to a raging inferno and only improve with age and use. (It was also highly reviewed by Fine Cooking magazine.)
I plan to be interred in mine, it's that good. Lodge also makes a nice little cast iron portable hibachi that would make a terrific gift with a grilling book or tools. If Santa brings me one of those, maybe I'll be interred in that instead.
As a companion, I recommend the cookbook Stir-Frying to the Edge of the Sky. Taking stir-fry to celestial heights, Edge... gives you inspiration while you wander around, exhausted and aimless, Market Place or King’s between 5:30 and 6:00 asking the eternal question, "What am I going to cook for dinner?"
Edge... will show you that all you need is a crown of broccoli, some snow peas, a red pepper, and meat or shrimp (if you want) to make a fab fry. You will go at it in your unbelievably heavy Lodge Cast Iron wok (did I mention that it's heavy?). It will be good, your diners will be satisfied and you will be settling with your nightcap IN your nightcap by 7:30, having used only one pan that doesn't even WANT to be washed.
Or, if you eschew pots, there are knives. My friend, Denise, said that she read that there are knife people and pot people. She is a knife person and cares deeply about her knives. I am a pot person and cannot give any advice on knives, but if you give a nice knife (or a set), include a book Denise admires on knife sharpening and care called An Edge in the Kitchen by Chad Ward, 2008. A knife enthusiast will go all misty eyed over the technical details of maintaining a surgical sharpness on their blades.
While I don't usually shirk and take the easy and overpriced path out of the gifting wilderness, I feel safe in pointing you to either the Sur Le Table catalogue or Williams and Sonoma. I'm pretty sure even dedicated foodies will appreciate something from either company. (Although, I marvel at their "handmade authentic tamales" priced at an audacious $55 for a dozen.
Where I come from, they are free at Matt’s El Rancho during margarita hour.) These glossy catalogues make you long to make stuffed peppers just so that you can use your new stuffed pepper baking pan. While I never really considered making filled pancakes before, if someone sends me the Wms&S Nordic Ware Filled-Pancake Pan for $39.95, I'll be serving ebelskivers (both sweet and savory) before the sun sets. Ditto the Zoku home popsicle maker. I gave this to my daughter a couple of years ago, and our freezer has not lacked for a popsicle since.
One of the advantages of the food trend is that it appears to be gender neutral (and age-neutral in a lot of cases). While the female of the house may give the KitchenAid standing mixer a whirl more frequently (or not, depending on your house or if there is a female in it), cooking gifts are not the least bit XY chromosome specific, unless they are Breast Cancer Awareness pink, and then you might need to make some concessions to pink aversion. Any space that is full of tools and materials with which to make stuff tends to encourage play and be attractive to both sexes.
Most of the men I know well have been happy to exert their primacy around a stove and/or grill (except for that one guy who was a raw foodist and all he ever did was wield a vegetable peeler over the sink – he may have been eaten by larger predators by now, I don’t know). So, a lot of the agony of gifting according to gender just disappears.
Cooking is just so-darn-cool that physically fit handsome dudes with manly stubble and denim work shirts do it on television all the time, giving the impression that any man who can caramelize a crème brulee is secure in his masculinity.
And then there are the books, books, books...
If you haven't opened one lately, modern cookbooks and food writers have morphed light years from the days when readers were advised to keep an ample supply of cans of fruit cocktail and French onion soup mix stocked at all times to create a quick and family-satisfying meal.
Today's talented food writers produce books and articles that are as much personal memoir (see any book by Ruth Reichl), lifestyle statement (see Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook: Recipes from Lambert's Texas Kitchens) and cultural reflection (The Cheese Board: Collective Works: Bread, Pastry, Cheese, Pizza) as how-to-cookbooks.
You won't go too far wrong wrapping up a pizza stone (but NOT the pizza scissors) and the Cheese Board book for your giftee. There's the reading, and the doing and the mastering, which, ultimately could lead to a very good pizza and expand into a life-long interest in pizza and Italian culture.
Followed closely by the on-line Italian lessons and the trip to Naples. All of which are a big improvement over other potential and uncreative gifts like a box of inflated grapefruits.
I would be remiss to neglect that the lore for a true foodie is not just about cooking and kitchen widgets. There is also the sensuous, romantic and historical side of food that for enthusiasts of culinary arts or, really, anyone who appreciates food, is equally as compelling. For example, Mort Rosenblum tells us in one of my all-time favorite books Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit that there are olive trees in Jerusalem so old that they likely shaded Jesus.
When you take up a tagine or a paella pan, you aren't just making dinner; you're tracing the food traditions of another culture. A pomegranate transports you to the Middle East; spanakopita brings Greece to your plate. A lemon in winter reminds you that the sun hasn't completely abandoned us.
The bad news is that this valuable information is coming late to you this holiday gifting season. The good news is that grown-ups understand how busy you are and appreciate a gift-certificate to an on-line food-centric retailer. It's also not too late to hike on down to the local gourmet/ /houseware & hardware store and any of the fine island bookstores to put together a thoughtful culinary gift with a sprig of rosemary tucked into the ribbon.
Happy holidays and may you enjoy the blessings of food and plenty in the year ahead.