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  • Writer's pictureJulia Hass

The Gift Guide For People Who Don’t Want Gifts – Part One : Food

You have that person in your life. You know the one – you love them and they’re great until it’s their birthday, or the holidays, or your anniversary or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or any other time of year you’d want to get them a present, and you ask them what they want.

“Oh, I don’t know,” they say.  “I don’t really need anything.”

These people are the worst.

Well, not the worst, but I do have three of them in my life (both my parents and my brother-in-law) and they make gift-giving pretty difficult. All three of them have a mixture of a few qualities, which are the same qualities that almost every person who comes to me for gift-giving advice (my favorite advice to give) says their loved or mildly tolerated one also possesses:

1. They genuinely don’t like having a lot of stuff around.

2. They’re picky.

3. When they see something they like, they just buy it for themselves.

Like I said, the worst. But also, not impossible.

There are a few tricks to gifting for difficult people. I personally use the time-honored approach of putting way too much effort in, which is to say that I never, ever, stop looking for presents or noting down when someone during any point in the year says “I wish I had a ____” or expresses interest in an object or event or literally anything. I email notes to myself constantly when I hear about a new product or someone mentions this new thing that changed their life. Every time I go shopping I take pictures of labels of things, and then when I go home I look them up and put them in neatly organized bookmarks folders. Around Halloween I fire up the spreadsheets and go through that subsectioned bookmarks folder and start making my cross-indexed lists so that when Black Friday comes, I will have that list down pat and I will be ready to order for maximum savings.

But this is just me, and most people are not me and do not have what is probably a diagnosable disorder of enjoying gift-giving way too much. So for everyone else who is normal and pays more attention to things that are actually good uses of their time, like balancing their checkbook or keeping living space in a condition that isn’t a constant health violation, there’s a much, much easier solution: treat them to something useful.

Everyone eats. Everyone sleeps. Everyone gets cold in the winter and warm in the summer (or vice-versa if they live in the southern hemisphere).  Everyone needs to wear clothes and not get wet when it rains and keep their cell phone battery from dying. Most people don’t even think about these stupid little things they do every day that are annoying or inconvenient, but they love it when some magnificent angel of a person comes in and helps make doing those things easier or better or more fun.

And I am here to help you be that magnificent angel. You’re welcome.

There are three things all human beings do: they eat, they sleep, and they go to the bathroom. Most people are pretty private about what they do on the toilet and would find a present related to that weird.  Sleep is a hard thing to get a gift related to because what are you going to buy them? A mattress? How are you supposed to know how they like to sleep? But eating has an endless amount of required paraphernalia, even for the most food-averse person,  and even if they have a weird diet you don’t entirely understand.

1. “Oh no,” you’re going to tell me, “I can’t get them a cookbook, this person I’m shopping for doesn’t cook/they’d burn a salad/can’t boil water/are allergic to everything”. To which I say, listen, everyone can follow a recipe if it’s well written. And if you want recipes that are idiot-proof, mostly healthy but don’t taste like you’re eating flax and kale, and are budget-conscious and don’t require unicorn hair that can only be found at one specialty store in Brooklyn whose only customers are Martha Stewart and Ina Garten, I cannot recommend Smitten Kitchen highly enough. I and my parents (who in previous years got the first cookbook) have cooked dozens of Deb’s recipes and not a single one has been short of a huge hit with everyone. Her website is free to everyone, but her two cookbooks,  Smitten Kitchen and her new one, Smitten Kitchen Every Day, contain additional recipes and have the added bonus of being something you can wrap up and give. If you’re not sold yet, here is an ode to Smitten Kitchen which I didn’t write but endorse every single word of.

2. You may think you have tasted things with spices in them. You may think your spices are fine. When my family first got Penzey’s spices, this is what I myself thought.  But you would be wrong, just as I was proven wrong when I tasted the first thing my dad cooked with the paprika and went “oh my god, THAT’S what it’s supposed to taste like? I didn’t know paprika had a taste!” This was maybe five to ten years ago, and we’ve since replaced every spice and herb and extract in our kitchen with Penzey’s, and every time someone comes over and has dinner with our family for the first time they always go “wow, what are these spices?” We can never go back.

Replacing an entire spice rack can be intimidating (and expensive, no matter where you’re buying from), but Penzey’s offers gift boxes which are beautiful, affordable, and always huge hits. I’m a dessert girl so I love the Baker’s Box (which also comes in a mini version at about half the price if you’re on a budget). It features what I think are two of Penzey’s strongest products – their vanilla extract and cinnamon, the third being the aforementioned paprika which is not included. (They sell varieties. Varieties of paprika! We live in amazing times.) If you’re buying for someone more into savories, this Herbs Gift Set is fantastic, and if you’re shopping for someone who holds a deep spiritual connection with their grill, don’t worry. Penzey’s still has you covered.

3. I am taking my life in my hands to tell you the following thing: Nervous Nellies Jams and Jellies is the best jelly you’ve never heard of. They are a tiny family-owned company in Maine that my parents discovered on a trip, and since then my mom has fiercely guarded the secret, as though anyone she gifts the jellies to can’t read the label and Google it themselves. All of their stuff is the kind of thing you find in every small New England town and farmer’s market, but what makes them extraordinary (and, when I Googled myself, make all sorts of best in America lists, so I think my mom’s secret is out) is their blueberry jelly. This stuff is like if someone emptied the insides of a blueberry pie into a jar, but it was a really good blueberry pie, not the congealed and overly-sweet kind. Like the kind of pie a grandmother in Avonlea would make and wins ribbons in town fairs. I’m not even that into blueberries, and I would happily sit down and eat a jar of this until I turned into Violet from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I would feel not an ounce of regret.

4. Everyone knows Stonewall Kitchen. They’re kind of like the Burt’s Bees of fancy artisanal food – like they bill themselves and fancy and artisanal, but let’s be real, you can find them in Shaw’s, so how true is that label really. The thing about Stonewall Kitchen, which if we’re entirely honest isn’t true of Burt’s Bee’s,  is that they’re legitimately good at what they do. You could get pretty much anything from Stonewall Kitchen and it would make a killer gift, but my favorite is their Roasted Garlic Mustard, which is great for people like me who like mustard in things but don’t like how aggressive mustard is when done badly.

Not pictured – Fancy Olive Oils or Balsamic Vinegars Because even a stopped clock is right twice a day, we were all due for a super-bougie trend that is neither dumb, more than a little problematic, or both. Enter: olive oil and balsamic stores.  These are right now all pretty localized, but if you’ve heard of one in your area, check them out.  As a bonus, when you go, they always have samples of each one with bits of bread to dip in them, so you can  just do lunch there and be all set. Fancy oils and vinegars are versatile and useful to even the most rudimentary chefs. I used a maple balsamic this summer as a gift for my gerbil-sitters, who always refuse to let me pay them, and they loved it. Oils or vinegars can be poured plain on salads for healthier alternatives to heavy dressings, or they can be used to sauté or roast vegetables that will make even picky eaters want to eat vegetables, or will make people go “wow, you must have worked really hard on this!” You or your recipient can lie. You can say yes, you slaved for many hours over the exact right reduction. It’s cool. I won’t tell.

5. “A mug” is a classic suggestion for a gift, but there are so many, and they’re not always microwave and dishwasher safe, which is a buzzkill, and everyone has different ideas of what the right size or shape or heft of a mug is. I get it.  But one  mug I think is really, really good is the Starbucks “You Are Here” mug series. If you’ve ever been inside a Starbucks, particularly a Starbucks in an airport, you’ve seen them, they’re the multicolored ones with a cityscape and the name of where you are. They’re bigger than the average mug (14 oz versus 12 oz), but not so big they feel like you could bludgeon someone to death with them, or feel like should be drinking beer out of them, or they don’t fit in your hand easily.  If the city that means most to your recipient isn’t the one you live in, these things have a cult following where some people apparently try and collect them all, like Beanie Babies or Pokemon. (I have just dated myself with these being my references, but go with it.) EBay has pages on pages on pages of people offering them for similar prices to in store.

6. I’m pretty sure this isn’t a constant of all difficult to shop for people, but all the difficult to shop for people that I know personally are very concerned about plastic/BPA and trying to get rid of it as much as possible around their food. This means getting rid of Tupperware, so why not help them replace it with Pyrex Tupperware? Pyrex is BPA-free, dishwasher safe (except the tops, but when have you ever had to do intensive work on a Tupperware top?), microwave safe, and it looks like glass but I have dropped them many many many times and never once so much as chipped them. They are heavier and bulkier than regular plastic, which is a pain in the butt, but better than dying of  however BPA is supposed to kill us. Also, if you want your Pyrex to be a bit jazzier, don’t worry, there are options with decorations.

7. You know what another plastic thing full of BPA is that’s around your food and you probably should stop using? Plastic bags.  If you want to replace plastic bags for fruits and vegetables (which do badly in plastic bags anyway), these mesh bags are great for that and as a bonus a great fruit fly deterrent in the summer. If you need a ziploc baggie replacement, how about these reusable silicone bad boys? Are you basking right now in the glow of second-hand virtue thinking about how many plastic bags you’re not going to strangle a sea turtle with? I sure am.

I know  that neither this nor the Pyrex are fun, sexy gifts. But what they do make is good filler gifts, like, you need to get x amount of stuff for someone but only have y fraction of it. They’re the kind of practical stuff no one thinks to make time to sit down and order, but everyone probably needs. If you know someone who’s moving to a new house, or having a new kid, or going to college or getting their first apartment, they will want these things and yes, they will also want a cool big ticket item, but why not throw in the practical along with it. Also, honestly, there are some people who would think these things alone make great gifts. And by “some people” I mean my mom, who told me so when I asked her if she thought they would.

8. Remember how I said I’m always taking pictures of the labels of things when I’m out shopping to do more research online? (And, let’s be  honest, to see how big the markup in the boutique store was, because it’s usually exorbitant.) Falcon Enamelware was one of those snap-a-picture finds. If you’re like me and grew up with a bunch of hippies, you probably have really fond memories of enamelware, which is that flecked stuff you ate off of when you were camping. I love the look of it, but it’s hard to find what I’d consider “good” enamelware, which needs to be the right material and thickness and also requires the exact right flecking and cannot under any circumstances look like it’s marbled. This is neither flecked nor marbled, but it’s definitely  got the exact right sturdy thickness – like, way nicer than the stuff you camped with. You can get all sorts of sets or individual pieces from Falcon at any price range, but what I have my eye on for when I get my own place one day (hah, it’s funny because Boston rent prices) is the Prep Set collection, which comes in four colors and for $100 packs a lot: four stackable mixing bowls and a matching colander. And way, way nicer than the tin ones that sound like a gong every time you so much as breathe too heavily near them.

9. Back in ye olde last year when I was young and spry and had no appreciation of the blessings of a good back because I had yet to realize I had a BAD back (that would come when my nephew was born and I started carrying him around), I went to the gym and saw a trainer once a week because I need someone who will be disappointed in me if I don’t go to the gym and actually work out.  She’d often complain about water, and how hard it was to get her clients to hydrate, and introduced me to the concept of people infusing their water. This was complete news to me because I’ve been taking anxiety medication since I was eight, and so I no longer remember what it’s like to not have chronic dry mouth and crave near-freezing cold clear liquids at all times and regardless of the weather.  But if you or your gift recipient are not like me and do need encouragement to drink more water, why not gift them a water infuser pitcher? (BPA free of course, though this particular model is not dishwasher safe.) This is a clever little doohickey where you put any combo of fruit or herbs you want in the center and it sits in the water and gives it a subtle flavor without making it so there’s weird floaty bits, which is gross. I actually gave this exact thing to my trainer one Christmas (she had a water bottle version, but she’s always losing water bottles), and she still raves about it.

10. In my rich fantasy life about my fabulous and perfect future self, a staple of my fabulous and perfect future self’s life is that I own a kitchen that would make Julia Child do her weird cooing laugh of delight and it is full of Nordicware. Nordicware is the company that made your mom or grandma’s bundt pan, but they make all sorts of pans and cookie stamps and basically anything that is a mold and used for cooking (and more, but that’s what they’re know for). These things are beautiful and last for lifetimes and make everything that comes out of them look like a Renaissance cathedral worthy of the Great British Bake Off. I am particularly enamored of this mold that can make four little bundlettes (bundlettes is wonderful word that, prior to Nordicware, I had no idea existed), which I would use to make four harmonious  yet distinct cakes to serve at my seance in which I summon the ghost of Julia Child into my airy and perfect kitchen and she chortles and tells me how great it is and we eat lots of butter and yet somehow don’t die of congestive heart failure.

11. I understand that on the surface, telling you to get someone a reusable shopping bag sure sounds a lot like I’m saying “on 9:00 PM on Christmas Eve, head to your nearest 7/11 and just take whatever you can find”, but I promise, it’s actually a good idea for fun filler gift, a lot like the other reusable bags I mentioned earlier.

Reusable shopping bags do not have to be those boring printed things you get for free when you do a charity walk or the logo ones they try to entice you with at a grocery store. They can be fun, and cool, and funny, which will make you 99% less likely to leave it in your car and just make them bag with paper because you’re not going to run out and get it.  You can get one with pretty much any design on it, in pretty much any size, and that fold up into pretty much any size too.  The big brands I’d suggest looking at are Baggu, EnviroSax, and Rume. The one pictured is by my favorite brand for reusable shopping bags (and a lot of other things, which I will get to in later parts), Blue Q.  Their stuff is fun, sassy, affordable, and super durable. And if you buy a Hangry Reusable Bag for yourself instead of whoever’s on your list, don’t worry. I almost did too.

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