Giving the gift of food seems easy. Who doesn't like a bottle of wine or a hunk of gourmet cheese? But that's no fun. Nobody's face really lights up upon opening these gifts, because wine and cheese are like elbows—everyone's got 'em already.
Whether it's the main course or simply a side dish, culinary gifts can be fun to give. They can be useful, extravagant, healthy, artery-clogging, unique, pedestrian, large or small. It doesn't matter, because food is life, both literally and in that hyperbolic, metaphorical, companies-that-want-to-sell-stuff kind of way.
Jam takes a long time to make and often yields frustrating results. But it can be so, so good when done right. Local, small-batch jams can cost upwards of $10 a jar, but they're worth the extra dough because they taste like fruit rather than corn syrup. Sonoma County's Kozlowski Farms ($6.25) makes 17 different kinds of boutique spreads, from fig and Muscat wine preserve to chipotle and jalapeño jam. Try a gift basket combining surefire hits with unexpected novelties.
Hot sauce can be a staple of one's culinary diet or just a good gag gift. For flavor, try Secret Aardvark Habañero ($5.75). It's hot enough for daredevils but with a sweet and sensitive side. For fun, give something with a clever name (Ass Blaster, anyone?) or, if you dare, Cajohn's Trinidad Scorpion, the sauce that's made with the world's hottest pepper.
Spices can be intimidating. What makes a good steak rub doesn't always make a righteous rib rub. What goes with fish? And don't even start with Indian food—it's so good when done right, but when made at home it, can be an atomic gut bomb in a pot. Let the experts put together a package based on personal preference. Savory Spice shop in Santa Rosa has 10-jar gift sets ($37–$55) for different cooking styles, and can make an even more personalized set in-store.
There's a lot of good beer bubbling to the surface in the Golden State, thanks to the exploding popularity of microbrews. Instead of trying to find the "tastiest" or "rarest" beer, go with the biggest one. A three-liter bottle of Arrogant Bastard's Double Bastard ($90) comes with a padlock and a message on the bottle berating those who believe themselves worthy of such a treasure. Aging it for one year only enhances the flavor, but it's enjoyable now, too. And at 11.2 percent ABV, it's best to share with a friend (or six).
Not into the suds? How about coffee? Sacramento's Temple offers a coffee subscription ($84 plus shipping) with six monthly deliveries. This boutique, award-winning small batch coffee is always fresh, and this is a good chance to turn someone you know into a coffee snob.
For the Mormon (or children) in your life, beverage gifts might include caffeine-free soda. But that's fine, because there are plenty to choose from. Grown Up Soda ($4.99 per six-pack) makes flavors like dry pomegranate, and Belvoir Fruit Farms elderberry pressé ($10 for 16.8 ounces) is wonderful. Fentiman's is just cool, with flavors like dandelion and burdock, mandarin and Seville orange jigger and their famous Curiosity Cola. A six-pack sampler set ($25.99) won't break the bank and makes a desirable alternative to a Harry & David gift box.
James Bond's Kitchen
Browsing in places like Sur La Table or Williams Sonoma is like being in the MI-6 kitchen laboratory, if there were such a thing. I half-expect that OXO avocado slicer ($10) to also cut a perfectly round hole through bullet-proof glass, or those RSVP grilling goggles ($20) to shoot lasers powerful enough to cut through steel. But, no, they're just semi-useful toys that solve the least troublesome First World problems. I mean, really—Progressive's tuna press ($4) and Pizzacraft's pizza cone set ($20) tackle the dangers of draining fish from the can and the nuisance of flat pizza.
Though there are some very silly doodads for the kitchen, there are also plenty great gift ideas for this part of the home. Cooking is so much easier (and safer) with a good, sharp knife. Wüsthof's new Epicurean six-inch chef's knife ($100) feels great and looks beautiful. It seems superfluous, but Peugeot's electric pepper mill ($100) is the Ferrari of pepper mills, and makes adding fresh pepper to every dish exciting—it's even got a little flashlight. For a stocking stuffer, the NexTrend garlic twist ($15) makes mincing garlic easy and keeps the oils from sticking to your fingers.
To put all these gadgets to good use, a subscription to a cooking magazine might be in order. David Chang's Lucky Peach magazine ($28), a quarterly offering from McSweeny's, is not only beautiful fun, it's full of damn good recipes and cooking tips.
A personal subscription to a delivery club can be a life-changer, like membership in the Black Pig Meat Company Community Supported Bacon Club ($129), which literally brings the bacon home every month for a whole year. Inspiration won't be hard to come by with a constant stream of please-cook-me at the doorstep.
For noncooks, give the gift of a dining experience. There are plenty to choose from in Northern California, but you can always decide to blow someone's mind—Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville offers "experience cards," metal credit cards in a fancy gift box that offer a special dinner for two at different price points ($750–$2,500). Bear in mind, dinner for one at this landmark restaurant is about $300, and the cards do not guarantee reservations. Those, dear reader, are harder to come by than a positive review of a Guy Fieri restaurant.