December 1, 2021, 1:21

    Give Your Loved One an Oyster I.O.U.: A Food-Themed Holiday Gift Guide

    Give Your Loved One an Oyster I.O.U.: A Food-Themed Holiday Gift Guide

    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.

    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

    Photograph by Mark Thirlwell / Getty

    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

    Photograph by H. Armstrong Roberts / Getty

    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.

    Things Involving Fire (Metaphorically)

    Hot sauce gets the reverential treatment it deserves in the hands of the Los Angeles-based artist Teresa Flores, who paints bottles of Cholula and Tapatío with golden swirls and flourishes inspired by traditional Mexican decorative arts ($20-$30; comes with a funnel for refilling). For those who prefer something more interactive, the Chili Lab’s make-your-own-hot-sauce kit ($49.95) gets the job done. I’m not sure who out there needs one gram of pure capsaicin—but maybe you know someone who does ($24.95; requires a waiver to purchase; “four drops on a saltine cracker kicks in fast and really hard”).

    Things Involving Fire (Literally)

    Candles, to be specific: Breakfast Highlands ($65), from D.S. & Durga, smells like scones with jam, strong tea, fog, and gorse; Steakhouse ($40) by Tuesday of California, like having a bit of a friction burn on your cheek from making out with a very manly man while gin drunk in a leather booth; Village Candle’s Warm Buttered Bread ($19.95), the rare candle whose scent can be described as “deliciously yeasty.” This double-wicked beauty from Pivot Concrete has no smell, but it is made from a hundred per cent grass-fed Hudson Valley beef tallow. (“Does it smell like beef? Barely, if at all.”) Throw in some matches from Fredericks & Mae’s absurd and brilliant extra-long matchbooks ($5 each), fifteen linear inches of easy-access flame.

    The World Is Dying—Have Some Caviar

    Ignore the conventional wisdom that you ought to eat caviar on a blin or gently close your eyes at each bite like you’re savoring diamonds. Forget the outdated ritual of the mother-of-pearl spoon, an affectation born of an era before the invention of stainless steel. The best caviar is a lot of caviar, scooped like guacamole from a vintage Russian caviar server ($41, or thereabouts) onto lightly salted potato chips ($3.59, I cannot emphasize enough that these and only these are the ideal caviar potato chip) that have been dabbed with sour cream or crème fraîche. It’s louche, it’s reckless, and it’s exactly what we need right now—like kicking up your feet on a Vladimir Kagan sofa, or wearing a crop top to the opera. You could cash in your 401(k) for a tin of the highest-end stuff, but why would you, when you could get hip fish-egg purveyor CaviAIR’s buttery and gentle imperial kaluga ($140 for a hundred grams, more than enough for two people to really go for it) or Siberian sturgeon ($160 for a hundred grams), ink-black and briny and sexy as hell. For the non-ovivorous, Cavi-Art, a vegan caviar made from seaweed ($9.95 for 3.5 oz.), is a shockingly good alternative, or opt instead for a set of caviar toasts ($5.97; one orange, one black) fashioned out of soap.

    A Drink, and Something to Drink It Out Of

    Photograph by Michel Delsol / Getty

    As I have mentioned in years past, you can’t go wrong giving someone a bottle of something marvellous, and a marvellous glass to pour it into. This year, pick up a sinuous, garnet-hued bottle of Sorel Liqueur ($40), an alcoholic riff on the traditional Caribbean hibiscus drink—the flower’s tart, tannic intensity tempered by warm veins of clove, cassia, and ginger. Created by the master distiller Jackie Summers, Sorel debuted in 2012 and ceased production three years later. Now, thanks to an investment from a fund dedicated to supporting Black-owned spirits brands, it’s back on shelves, as rich and potent as ever. Pour a finger or two over a pile of crushed ice in one of the designer Susan Alexandra’s trippy-chic garden glasses, which feature 3-D blown-glass flower blossoms set on a rippling backdrop of swimming-pool blue ($98 each). For the nondrinkers, try a bottle of the winemaker Cyrille Sevin’s Petillant de Sureau, a tart fizzy elderflower soda that pops like champagne ($15.50).

    Edible, Complex

    Frantoio Muraglia’s regal bottle of olive oil ($68) for your greasy king. A whole entire Colonel Newsom’s Aged Country Ham (starting at $111.84 raw and $136.84 cooked) for the connoisseur of good meat. Pandan kaya from Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen ($9.99) for the sweet and sticky. An Olympia Provisions salami bouquet ($50-85) for your partner in pork. Sugar Lab’s unbelievably cool 3-D-printed squid-, cabbage-, and fried-chicken-shaped kimchi bouillon ($18.99 for six) to spice things up. Caramelo’s life-alteringly excellent Sonoran-style tortillas (duck fat, pork fat, or avocado oil; $5.99 and up for a package of twelve) for the delightfully flexible. A grinder of Vampire Salt ($8) from Savor Seasoning Blends for anyone prone to biting. A bottle of Karam’s Garlic Sauce ($14 for two) for someone who’ll want to spread it on everything. A Phillips pasta-extruding machine ($299.95) for the straightforwardly erotic.

    For Your Dumpling

    A necklace bearing one of Delicacies Jewelry’s golden gyoza, ravioli, pierogi, or xiao long bao ($95 each), if they’re the dainty type. Some of YumChaSF’s sensational array of felt dim-sum toys ($12-22.50), if they’re not.

    Ask Not for Whom the Supply Chain Tolls

    If you have one week: Get in touch with your friendly neighborhood antiquarian culinary bookseller: Omnivore Books in San Francisco, for instance, or Rabelais in Biddeford, Maine, or Kitchen Arts and Letters, Lizz Young Bookseller, Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, or Archestratus in New York. Tell them your price range and a few fun facts about the recipient (loves nature, vegetarian, a bit of a Francophile, an unrepentant wicked streak), and sit back in awe as, without fail, they produce a volume of such obscurity and specificity that, come unwrapping time, you’ll look more like a miracle worker than a gift giver. (“Les Champignons Toxiques et Hallucinogènes,” by the noted mycologist Roger Heim, a 1963 first edition, published in Paris by Boubée & Cie.; $350.)

    If you have one day: What snacks does your loved one love? Go to the supermarket and buy them all—every bag of gummy bears, say, or a whole shopping-cart load of beef jerky or Oreos or Hershey’s Kisses or those tiny hotel-breakfast boxes of cereal. Fill a sturdy box with your bounty, and—this next step is the most important part—wrap it more alluringly than you have ever wrapped a gift in your life, with glossy paper and cascades of ribbon, the sort of packaging that will break Instagram, that will cause Martha Stewart to spontaneously materialize in your living room and, weeping, break into rapturous applause.

    If you have one hour: Enter the diner closest to your current whereabouts and ask for a bag of oyster crackers. On a card, write down the following: “I.O.U. two dozen plump, sweet, sea-kissed oysters, to be delivered, with at least two days’ notice, on the date of your choosing.” Staple it to the bag of crackers, and deliver. When the time comes, visit the Web site of your overnight oyster shipper of choice—I’m a fan of the Massachusetts-based Island Creek Oysters, which cultivates magnificent bivalves in the frigid waters off Cape Cod, and sells the fruits of other independent aquaculture operations along the East Coast—and do what you promised to do.

    Sourse: newyorker.com

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