There are so many things, wondrous and beautiful and strange, to give to the sort of person who takes particular joy in eating or drinking, or at least in the appearance thereof.
It is a rule of the universe, perhaps thus far unwritten, that any person who has been observed drinking an alcoholic beverage or discussing the existence of alcoholic beverages will, at some point in their life, be given a little canvas sack of rocks, as a gift. These will be smooth and clean-hewn, most likely cubes, but possibly more complex and faceted. “They’re whiskey stones,” the gift-giver will likely say, by way of explanation, in a voice full of encouragement and wonder. “You put them in the freezer, and they get very cold, and then you can use them to chill your drink without watering it down.”
If you haven’t yet been given a set of whiskey stones, get ready: it’s only a question of when. I received mine something like six years ago, and they’ve spent the time since then in the back left corner of my freezer, heaped inside their muslin pouch. It occurred to me recently that six years was probably enough time for the stones to have chilled to the proper drink-cooling temperature, so I tumbled them into a glass and anointed them with a modest pour of room-temperature tequila. I took a sip, frowned, waited five minutes, and sipped again. The tequila remained room temperature. I recalled the laws of thermodynamics, and realized the truth about whiskey stones: despite their striking geometry, they are entirely pointless. I frowned again, and drank my glass of room-temperature tequila, which had rocks in it.
This holiday season, please do not give your loved ones whiskey stones. There are so many things, wondrous and beautiful and strange, to give to the sort of person who takes particular joy in eating or drinking, or at least in the appearance thereof.
Incredible, inedible carbohydrates.
I can’t stop thinking about how much I want one of Yukiko Morita’s ingenious and bizarre bread lamps: she takes actual loaves of bread, hollows them out, resins what remains, and wires them with inner light bulbs. The effect is something like stained glass, the once-dense loaves now delicate and ultra-lightweight, glowing with a gentle, golden luminosity. Morita’s batards and baguettes plug directly into a wall socket, but her dinner rolls and croissants are wireless, running on battery power—perfect for a midnight-snack night light, or for throwing into a bread basket alongside a dozen actually edible sourdough rolls, and waiting for your guests to notice. If you prefer to use bread as a hiding place for treasures, rather than to illuminate your home, this trinket box from the Austrian porcelain masters Augarten Wien looks almost as real as the real things. For pure beauty without any function at all, pick up one or two of the artist Stephanie Shih’s ceramic dumplings—glossy, perfectly folded wontons, glazed in a creamy white or gold lustre.
A celebrity spatula.
Anyone who cooks more than once or twice a month is always running short on spatulas. They’re the socks of cooking gear: always a welcome gift, but maybe a little bit of a snooze. Shake up the ennui this year with a silicone spatula bearing an illustration of Giggy, the beloved dog of Lisa Vanderpump, the reality-television doyenne and magnificent restaurateur, drawn by Ms. Vanderpump herself. Proceeds from the spatula go to support No Kid Hungry, as do those bearing doodles by Vanessa Hudgens (a heart saying “You got this!”), Guy Fieri (“Peace, Love, and Taco Grease”), the YouTube megastar Hannah Hart, and a dazzlingly random lineup of others.
Something to snack on.
An orange is a classic Christmas gift, a tradition dating from a time of less sophisticated global shipping logistics, when receiving a single orange was a rare and marvellous treat. Despite the apparent hegemony of navels, with their transit-friendly thick skins and blandly sweet interiors, there actually still are plenty of orange varieties whose presence in the toe of my Christmas stocking would make my eyes light up. And, this time of year, you can find many of them at local grocery stores. There isn’t much more beautiful than a satsuma mandarin, palm-size and brilliant-hued, and usually sold with its rich green leaves still attached—the flavor is honeyed and the tiniest bit astringent, sparkling like champagne. If no satsumas are forthcoming in your neck of the woods, go for a sackful of sumo oranges (a hybrid between the navel and the satsuma), or some gothically beautiful blood oranges, whose sunset skin is often mottled with what look like wine-colored bruises—actually a preview of the vivid, visceral pleasures within.
Of course, the best thing to eat with oranges is pistachios—most of us are familiar with the round, pale-shelled variety grown in California and elsewhere, but the real connoisseur knows that there’s nothing better than an Iranian pistachio. Those, alas, aren’t so easily available right now, but the next best pistachios come from Turkey—especially the Antep variety, slimmer and darker than their more popular standard-variety cousins, like a little torpedo of sweet, floral, husky intensity. If excellent grocery snacks aren’t enough (though, truly, they are), present them in one of Spencer Peterman’s gorgeous wooden bowls, made from felled or fallen trees salvaged from New England forests.
Every home cook has a box of salt, but does she have hand-harvested sea salt from the Arctic Circle? Nordur Salt comes in a pretty blue box decorated with a sultry mermaid, and is printed with the moving tale of a fisherman named Brandur who was so moved by the singing of a mermaid named Alda that he hurled himself into the ocean. Doesn’t that make dinner taste a little better?
Saffron—really, really good saffron.
Each year, the largest exporter of the saffron crop grown in Castilla la Mancha—considered the premier saffron-growing region of Spain, if not the world—is one distributor, which packages these delicate red-brown threads in small glass bottles and sells them under its own in-house label. It’s Costco. Costco! The same giant warehouse store where you can eat a hot dog for a dollar fifty while waiting for your dad to bring the car around so you can load up your one-gallon bucket of potato salad, five-pack of boxer shorts, and (at least at the location near me, in Brooklyn) an entire halal goat. The store’s Kirkland Signature saffron is not only some of the best in the entire world, but these particular jars are shockingly affordable. Saffron threads, the lovingly hand-harvested stigmas of the delicate autumn crocus, are famously the most expensive spice in the world—a little goes a long way, of course, but, at these prices, it’s a bit less precious.
The dreamiest tinned fish.
Most days, when I wander into the kitchen to make myself lunch, I indulge in a mild fantasy that this time, when I open my kitchen cabinet, I’ll find it stocked bottom to top with jars and tins of ventresca tuna. Ventresca is a cut, not a species: it’s the tuna’s belly, silken and luscious, the part that, at a sushi bar, would be reverently presented to a diner with a whispered identification: o-toro. The belly is exquisite when raw, and retains its exquisiteness through the canning process. (Even better: unlike most sushi-bar tuna, which is cut from the critically endangered bluefin, most tinned ventresca comes from responsibly fished albacore.) Any ventresca is going to be amazing ventresca, though I particularly like the slim tins that come from José Gourmet, packaged in boxes decorated with a sassy illustration of a foppish, mustachioed tuna.
Something to drink, and something to drink it out of.
A magnum of white zin is nice, a fifth of their favorite gin is lovely, but the best kind of drink to give as a gift is something your recipient has never heard of before. A spicy, funky, sophisticated whiskey from an indie, for example, like Catchers Rye, from the Detroit distillery Two James, or the maximalist pleasures of Snow Leopard vodka, a smooth, slightly earthy Polish import distilled from, of all things, spelt. Non-drinkers and drinkers alike will marvel over a bottle of Proteau, a zero-proof aperitif that looks like a bottle of Pinot Noir and tastes like a bundle of blackcurrants got cozy with sage and bay leaf and black pepper, with an elegantly tannic finish. But here’s the important thing: a bottle alone is boring. Deliver it with a pair of glasses to pour its contents into, like ABC Carpet & Home’s curvaceous, impossibly delicate Simile stemware in rosy pink or smoky gray, or—for a more rough-and-tumble situation—these grandma-chic floral highballs from Fishs Eddy.
A bag of eyes.
Wilton, the cake-decorating giant that’s likely responsible for any numbers or letters you’ve plopped on top of a cupcake in the last twenty years, churns out all manner of products that probably make perfect sense to professional bakers, and which, to me, are so hilarious and weird that they attain a sort of Dadaesque perfection. Take their edible, flavorless metallic spray paint, for example, which is ostensibly intended for use on icing but which obviously begs to be artistically applied to a mashed-potato sculpture, or a standing rib roast. In all of Wilton’s cavalcade of wonders, to my mind, no product can compete with its selection of decorative edible eyeballs: flat, white sclera of sugar marked with black to represent pupils, lids, and lashes. I’d yelp with delight if a friend presented me with a dozen packages of assorted eyes, tied up with a bow, and I bet you know someone who would, too.
Punched-up pantry goods.
Maybe you wouldn’t buy a fifty-dollar bottle of olive oil for yourself, but isn’t that sort of thing that this time of year is all about? Frantoio Muraglia’s extra-virgin olive oil is fruity and sweet, cold-pressed in Apulia using some sort of special equipment and, oh, who cares—look at that bottle, a heavy ceramic white looped in a cascade of rainbow stripes. You could pour dishwater in there and it would probably still be some of the nicest olive oil in the world. In a moodier kitchen, a bottle of Haku black-garlic shoyu would look right at home: the rich soy sauce is brewed in Japan’s Kyoto Prefecture, and then infused with the fruity, earthy flavor of garlic that’s been carefully fermented until it turns black.
A ridiculously gigantic brick of chocolate.
The Belgian chocolatier Callebaut produces some of the most exquisite chocolate in the world. Its massive, eleven-pound bricks of chocolate—available in both dark and milk!—might be intended for use by commercial confectioners, but it’s not like they’ll ask for proof when you buy it for a friend. (Or an enemy.) (Or yourself.)