At the Present Time
What makes a gift great? The annual Gift Guide begins. And notes from a spectacular DC meal.
“My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.”
That’s the first line in An Interest in Life, a story in Grace Paley’s The Little Disturbances of Man, one of my favorite books.
What I love about it is that Grace Paley truly understood the power of gifts. While some separate the world into glass half-full, glass half-empty people, I see things differently. To me the world is divided between people who open their presents immediately and those who prefer to wait.
I am one who waits. An unopened package is filled with all your desires. Underneath that wrapping is everything you’ve ever wanted. It is all the trips you yearn to take, all the kitchens you hope to build, every book you long to read. Until you tear off the ribbons and discover that it’s just that broom you’ve been needing, each box holds untold riches.
But it is more than that. Because the open box tells you who the giver thinks you are. If they have chosen right, it is absolutely thrilling. How on earth did Aunt Lili know I’ve been longing for a purple cashmere sweater? If they’ve chosen wrong, of course, it’s horrifying. What on earth does Aunt Lili think I am going to do with this ridiculous thing?
I first discovered this the Christmas of my freshman year. My boyfriend gave me a plaid jumper. I was horrified. Plaid? Me? It was the mid-sixties and I aspired to be Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend who was on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I knew Suze would not have been caught dead in a plaid jumper. I broke up with the guy immediately.
The next Christmas a boy friend (as opposed to a boyfriend) handed me a clumsily wrapped package and stammered, “I’m not sure you’re going to like this.” I didn’t open it right away, and for the next few days my imagination filled the box with all manner of wonders. It was too heavy to be a silk negligee but I thought it might be an antique carafe he had unearthed at a garage sale, or a beautiful ceramic bowl. It was none of those things. When I finally opened it I found some antique kitchen implements: what looked like the first egg beater ever invented, a beautiful old flour sifter and a strainer so lovely I hung it on my wall like a piece of art.
What I loved about these things was not that they were old and beautiful, but that here in this midwestern college town someone had seen the cook hiding inside me. How?
Mac shrugged. “I just thought you’d like them,” he said. A few months later he gave me an old 78 LP: one of the first recordings Muddy Waters ever cut. It was called Two Trains Running and the deal was sealed: He had seen into my soul, and I was in love.
I have been hopeful – and fearful – about giving people presents ever since. Because I now know that each time you offer a person a present you are really telling them who you hope they might be.
For the last dozen years I’ve been putting out a daily gift guide, starting in mid-November and running until Christmas. A few days ago a reader reached out to ask if I planned to continue the tradition.
Since I now offer suggestions on a weekly basis I’m not going to do that. Instead, every week between now and Christmas I’m going to reprise a few favorites.
You don’t need this beautiful glass pot. But don’t you want it? I certainly do. And I can think of at least a dozen friends who would like it as much as I do.
Made of industrial glass and designed by architect Massimo Castagna, the pots are made by hand; only ten are made each day. (Ergo, they aren’t cheap.)
I fell in love with titanium tumblers when I first ate at Singlethread in Healdsburg. The one they gave me felt so wonderful in my hand that I ended up petting it throughout the meal. The tumblers also kept hot drinks hot and cold drinks absolutely icy. I instantly coveted one.
But when I found them online, the Japanese tumblers were stupidly expensive, and I couldn’t bring myself to spend $175 for a single one.
I should have bought it, because the price soon went up to $250. But last year, looking for a gift for a friend who has everything, those tumblers came to mind. And I discovered this version, which come in many cool colors and cost a mere $58. Come on - it’s a gift.
For Pappy Lovers
There are those of us who love Pappy Van Winkle. Those of us who save the final drop in our bottle of twenty year old family reserve because we know we’ll never get another.
While you probably can’t gift us a bottle of our favorite booze (last time I looked a bottle of the 20 year old cost more than three grand), the company has very cannily come up with alternative options. They have an entire website of Pappy-related gifts, and while I’m not about to fall for Pappy slippers, hot sauce, cufflinks or socks (they’ve left no stone unturned), I’m planning on sending this rather lovely bowl, made of the staves of old bourbon barrels, to a Pappy fanatic friend.
My father moved to New York from Berlin in 1926. He was twenty-six years old and fairly set in his food ways. Which is to say he didn’t consider anything that wasn’t German real food.
He thought cereal was a strange American invention, had very little use for salad (or anything green, to be completely honest), and wouldn’t dream of eating dinner if a basket of bread wasn’t sitting on the table. And when I wanted to make him happy, all I had to do was bake a Sacher Torte.
He loved Lebkuchen and had a secret source that he never revealed. For years I made do with the disappointing commercial brands and then, a few years ago I discovered Leckerlee, it was like being a child again.
These are the real thing. Chewy, gingery, spicy, nutty – with that completely tasteless but compelling wafer on the bottom. It is, for me at least, Christmas in a single bite.
Poor Man’s Truffles
One of the things I love about food is that it offers many opportunities to indulge your friends without breaking the bank. You’re probably not about to buy your friend a Lamborghini, an original Matisse or a Dior dress. But a perfect peach (in season) isn’t out of the question. And while you may not be able to give your favorite people jars of caviar or boxes of truffles, there are other ways to make them feel pampered.
Consider, for example, this Truffle Butter. It’s just a tiny jar, but when you open it up, put a dollop onto a baked potato or a slice of warm, rare steak, the aroma leaps into the air and fills the room. It’s really intense.
The first time I tried it I was reminded of an evening I spent in the kitchen with Alain Ducasse. The great chef took a huge black truffle, sliced it into thick disks, and then slowly spread each one with butter and fed them to me, slice by slice. I doubt I’ll ever have another experience quite like that, but last night I baked a potato, slathered it with this truffle butter and was transported back to that moment.
The Truffleist’s fine butter is nothing more than excellent butter, truffle and salt. It will keep in the refrigerator for months so that any time your friends feel low they can spoon some onto pasta or spread it onto a slice of toast; at $40 it’s a wonderful reminder to be grateful that there are so many fine flavors in this world.
Getting an Edge
A great cook once told me that a knife should be so sharp that if you lightly balance the blade on your thumbnail it will sink slightly in. If you can scoot the blade across the nail’s surface, it’s not sharp enough. Personally, I’ve been keeping my edge with an electric knife sharpener. I’ve had this Chef’sChoice sharpener for years; it’s the lazy person’s way to stay sharp, but it really does the trick.
The most fun I’ve had lately is trolling through Lizz Young’s new website. (Well, it was new when I wrote this 5 years ago.) Ms. Young has set up shop, selling a wide range of cookbooks, manuscripts, menus, advertising cards….. If it has to do with food, she’s interested. (At the time she had a great MFK Fisher archive, which seems to have been purchased.)
If you’re looking for a thoughtful gift for a food-lover, vintage cookbooks and menus are a swell idea. Other much-loved vintage cookbook sites: Bonnie Slotnik Cookbooks, Omnivore Books and Kitchen Arts and Letters.
I spent the early part of this week in Washington DC speaking to senators about our film, Food and Country. Many thanks to all of you who came out to our DC premiere; it was wonderful to meet so many of you there.
A few of the farmers in the film came to join us on the hill, and one night we all went to Jaleo to celebrate.
It was an amazing meal.
And a few of my favorite dishes…
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