Naturally, we are all, every one of us, good and sober citizens who recognize the consumerist folly of giving holiday presents. The nonnecessity of it all. The silly little ritual of purchase, concealment, adornment, and surprise. The cutthroat, sub-rosa competition of who will out-gift whom, whether by money spent (the amateur’s yardstick) or by delight inspired (the true measure of a gift). Then again, the pointlessness is part of the point. I could give you this lovely little thing any day of the year, sure, but why not have it come wrapped (in all senses) in the holidays? This year, as in all years, I urge you to give gifts that are either tremendously beautiful, tremendously useful, or tremendously absurd—anything less is a missed opportunity. You’ll find gift ideas here for people who cook or eat—which is to say, gift ideas for everyone. Consider, too, a present both personal and local: your favorite cafés, bars, and restaurants almost certainly have coffee mugs, T-shirts, tote bags, and bottles of signature sauce for sale, and nothing wins Christmas morning like reminding friends and loved ones of good times past, and good times to come.
Prices listed below are accurate as of publication but may fluctuate over time.
Tools That Work Better, or at Least Look Better
When it comes to giving someone a functional gift, the rule is that it must either perform its function in a new and glorious way—not just a butter knife but a butter knife whose edge is perforated with tiny apertures that turn even the hardest brick of the stuff into soft, spreadable ribbons ($24)—or it needs to bring form to the table in a major way—not just a butter knife but a hand-formed, milky-glazed ceramic butter knife made in Japan by the artist Sumiko Dougami ($14). Not just an angled spatula-spoon hybrid but an angled spatula-spoon hybrid made of cherrywood that glows like sunlit honey ($14), made by West Virginia’s Allegheny Treenware—and, charmingly, available in versions for both right- and left-handed cooks. Not just a rice mold but a rice mold shaped like an otter ($17), who floats peacefully in your bowl of curry or soup while holding his favorite shell. Not just another bowl, set of napkins, saltshaker, or coffee pot but a rainbow-splattered enamelware bowl ($26) made by artisans in Turkey; wavy-lined napkins block-printed in Rajasthan, India ($96 for six); minimalist salt-and-pepper pots hewn in Dublin from Irish beech ($51.16); a French press made of amber borosilicate glass ($85) that doubles as a time machine to the nineteen-seventies.
Mastery Over Mushrooms
Perhaps no earthly organism is more fascinating or more horrifying than the mushroom, a living thing whose mode of life—invisible spores! Mysterious underground mycelial networks!—somehow eludes the grasp of our feeble human minds. This year, let us embrace that which we cannot understand, with a mushroom-growing set that brings the exquisite strangeness of the fungal world into our lives and, hopefully, makes for a nice little meal as well. Forget the supermarket staples in the more conventional grow-your-own kits and go for something a bit more special, like a setup for growing cloudlike lion’s mane ($27.99), pearly peach-pink oyster mushrooms ($19.99), or spindly, tentacular reishi ($25.99). Or, if you’ve got a bit of outdoor space and you believe in miracles, a back-yard morel-growing kit ($42.95, plus a willingness to wait two or more years before deciding if it’s a scam). If you worry that a lump of spore-inoculated dirt is not the most thrilling thing to discover within a gift box, supplement the growing kit with a set of uncannily lifelike French resin-mushroom knife rests ($90 for a set of six), Ibaba Rwanda’s delicate shroom-embroidered linen napkins ($295 for four), or a quite lovely foot-tall iron mushroom ($52) of no discernible purpose beyond the aesthetic.
A Board Game That’s Also a Snack
Fill Food52’s backgammon charcuterie board ($128) with fifteen pieces each of, say, aged Gouda and saucisson sec; or white versus orange Cheddar; or boudin blanc versus boudin noir; or prosciutto rosettes, toothpick-pinned for sturdiness, versus Ritz crackers with bits of pâté on them. Nibble your pieces while your opponent’s attention is elsewhere—subtle cheating and a snack, all at once!
A Popcorn Palace
Going to the movies is back, baby. On the other hand, watching TV on the couch at home maintains the distinct advantage of occurring on the couch, at home. One arguable edge the multiplex holds is the snack situation. No worries; just invest in a full in-house theatrical popcorn setup. The secret ingredient behind most sticky-topped concession counters is a product ominously called Flavacol ($9.42 for 35 oz.), a micro-fine salt spiked with faux butter flavor and a dash of yellow food coloring. (It’s powerful stuff; use a scant three-quarters of a teaspoon for every half cup of unpopped kernels.) Add a sleeve of cardboard popcorn buckets ($13.98 for a package of ten), a gallon of LouAna Buttery Topping ($19.49; contains no real butter), and, if movie night is truly the glue holding your marriage together, perhaps consider investing in a commercial-grade countertop buttery-topping dispenser ($1,149), for a fully immersive pump-and-splatter experience.
A Cornucopia of Fruit
Superstitchous’s unbelievably beautiful knit blankets, adorned with cherries, figs, loquats, persimmons, or pomegranates ($160 each). A pet bed shaped like a tart crust, plus assorted fruit-shaped pillows ($19; best for a cat, a smallish dog, or a largish lizard). An earring made from an actual slice of kiwifruit ($38). One single Hawaiian pineapple ($39.95). An amazingly cute ceramic blueberry plate ($20). Le Puzz’s thousand-piece “Juicy” puzzle ($30). A playset of wooden produce ($30), halved and held together with Velcro, ready to be sliced by a clever and dextrous child. A potted calamondin tree ($65), also known as a calamansi, which unlike most other citrus is bug resistant, indoor friendly, and virtually unkillable, and blooms (fragrantly!) and bears fruit (abundantly!) almost as soon as it’s out of the box. Shellfish placemats from the chic and irrepressible drag queen Steak Diane (les moules, le homard, les crevettes, les huîtres, $65 each)—fruits of the sea.
Cookware That’s Older Than All of Us
The lore (if not necessarily the verifiable truth) is that, prior to the Second World War, the iron used by venerable cookware manufacturers such as Wagner and Griswold was made from a different, better formula, which has now been lost forever. What is verifiably true is that, unlike the hulking, rough-faced cast iron we’re used to today, these elder vessels are almost unbearably wonderful, made from a thinner cast and consequently lighter weight, with surfaces that are satin smooth. When, after washing my century-old Griswold skillet (soap on cast iron is perfectly fine; it’s soaking the thing in water that will ruin it), I wipe it down with a thin coat of vegetable oil, it shines like a pool of spilled ink. You could scour vintage shops and yard sales between now and Christmas, and set yourself to the task of scrubbing off decades of rust and neglect, but the easier path is no less virtuous: eBay and Etsy abound with dedicated restorers and resellers, who will gladly ship directly to you or your beloved a 1940 Wagner No. 8 ($185), a circa-nineteen-thirties Griswold No. 3 ($79.95), or a graceful Griswold vienna roll pan estimated to be from the late eighteen-hundreds ($229).
A Light in the Darkness
It’s dark by late afternoon, and it’s only going to get darker. But stick a plant under a grow light, even in a windowless closet, and it’ll merrily photosynthesize through the winter. Grow lights are generally optimized for red and blue light, while light-therapy lamps for humans include the whole spectrum. Still, I would be lying if I said there was nothing deeply, powerfully mood-elevating about the fifteen daily hours of light emitted by my AeroGarden (from $99.95 to $895, plus more for seed kits), an all-in-one hydroponic garden system that’s already bathing my kitchen in its bright light when I wake up in the predawn morning, and only switches off around the time I’m ready to go to bed. It’s a nice side benefit, too, that it grows fresh herbs and lettuces and climbing vines of cherry tomatoes—the winter of my countertop made glorious summer by the sun of a partial-spectrum LED array. A slew of similar self-contained indoor garden machines have popped up in the past few years: the Click & Grow indoor herb garden ($124.95) is cute and small, the Smart Garden 9 ($229.95) has sort of a futuristic basket vibe, the Veritable Smart Indoor Garden ($220) skips the water-nutrient system of the others and actually uses good, old-fashioned soil.
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