I have thousands and thousands of rules about gift giving, and I am going to tell you about every single one.
First, the gift should be extremely thoughtful. Duh, of course, right? But that’s why you can’t just go off an Amazon wishlist, or even what the person has told you she wanted. Instead, you have to listen all year round for hints as to what he/she is truly wishing for. The goal is to give a gift the person has never seen before, didn’t even know she wanted, and yet—now that it’s unwrapped—can’t imagine life without it ever again.
Second: the goodness of the gift is directly proportional to the difficulty of obtaining it. This means that the best gift is something you made in secret over several months, such as a needlepoint portrait pillow of your best friend’s cat. Failing that, however, you might order it from Australia, or from a bakery in Ohio where the owner speaks pidgin English, or at the very least, off Etsy. The gifts in my gift guide generally break this rule, as they are mostly easily obtainable, and many of them qualify for Amazon Prime shipping. (The links below are not, however, affiliate ones.) A corollary to this rule, though: price does NOT count toward the difficulty quotient. Extravagantly expensive gifts mean you’re throwing money at the problem, and that’s just vulgar.
Third: the gift should ideally be under $50. Ideally, it should be something that was originally exorbitantly priced, but you miraculously managed to get for a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost. The reason for this is a two-parter: (a) it’s no good to make the other person feel uncomfortable by spending far more on him than he did on your gift, and (b) a tight budgetary framework inspires creativity. This rule can of course be broken on any whim, but it is only broken once in this list, and even then you can easily get a less expensive version.
As you can probably imagine, my fervor for explaining these rules is only increasing, so I must stop somewhere, or else we’ll spend all night discussing grosgrain ribbon and the abomination that is the gift bag. So, on to the gift guides.
These first three are for the subjects I know best: entertaining, travel, and cooking.
Toas-Tite Sandwich Grill – Chances are, the person you are giving this to has either never seen it or has fond memories of it from the days of auld lang syne. Great for outdoorsy types who would use it over a campfire or people who need to amuse small children. Or people who have the same taste as small children. It comes in a terrific retro box, so no fears about wrapping this otherwise awkward thing. A mere $28.95 off Amazon.
Molecular Gastronomy Kit – For someone who watches too many Food Network shows, this is a unique gift. Please don’t make me eat these concoctions, that is all I ask. This set from A+R is $58, but there are less expensive kits too, like this molecular mojito kit for $22.99.
Set of Mini Cast Iron Skillets – These aren’t technically sold as a set, but at only $7.83 for one 3.5″ skillet, you could easily assemble your own set of 3, 4, 5, or more. They’re perfect for serving fruit crumbles and cobblers or cookies. Or for cooking a tiny breakfast for squirrels in your miniature cabin in the woods.
Chemex Coffee Maker – How often can you buy something that’s housed in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection for under $40? (Not often.)
Kaleido Trays – These powdercoated steel trays come in a nested set that’s only $16.
Orb Collection Barware – The copper shaker by London-based designer Aaron Probyn is only $21.95, and the two jiggers are $9.95 each.
Flight 001 Beachwear Bag – A giant Ziploc bag does not cost $28 like this does, but the Ziploc is not exactly chic. If you’d like to go all out, there’s a whole set of bags for all purposes for $51.34. Yes! No more shoe soles touching your undercrackers.
Grid-It Organizer – All cords and electronics stand ready and accounted for. $14.30, and available in non-horrible colors such as black, red, and blue.
EatSmart Digital Luggage Scale – I have no idea why this company’s name is EatSmart, but this is the best-reviewed digital luggage scale on Amazon and the price is reasonable at $19.95. This would have saved me so much strife when our luggage mysteriously became packed full of secondhand record albums.
Gorillapod Tripod – This tripod has a standard universal 1/4-20 screw for attaching your camera to the tripod mount and flexible legs allowing you to wrap it around a branch or other stable object to get the photo you want. $18.00.
Language Bangle – Would I actually wear this? In Europe, probably not. But if I were to ever go to a GI JOE convention in Tokyo again, I might. $10.95 from CB2.
Lewis N. Clark RFID Neck Stash – It turns out that the grotty old passport holder I’ve been carrying around for ages could use an update. A relative of mine had a credit card cloned without ever leaving his wallet, but the RFID shield aspect of this would have prevented it. $12.81 off Amazon.
Please, under no circumstances, ever get anyone this.
It is important to discern if the person you’re giving a gift to is a baker or a cook. Some people are strictly one or the other, though I am both. It’s not a good idea to give baking tools to a cook who hates to bake, so caveat emptor.
Silpat Macaron Baking Mat – The key to these is that they include a template for piping the macaron shells—which is a huge annoyance-saver compared to drawing circles on parchment paper. And, even if you’re not using it for macarons, you can still use it for baking cookies, etc. $34.95.
Cook’s Pure Maple Extract – I can pretty much guarantee that your gift recipient does not have this, because I haven’t been able to find maple extract in a store or epicurean market for at least 20 years. These extracts are not made with strange ingredients, so you might want to get the hazelnut, peppermint, or almond version too. $8.25.
GreenPan Hard Anodized Ceramic 10″ Fry Pan – These are the most nonstick of nonstick pans out there… and more importantly, the nonstick coating is ceramic, not something that flakes off into your food or kills your pet birds when heated up. Macy’s is forever offering coupons, so you could theoretically get this for less than the $44.99 sale price offered today. West Elm also has a 12″ version on sale for $39, but as a cook I like it a little bit less because the extra handle makes it more difficult to store in a cabinet.
Collapsible Silicone Colander – Except for the weird colors that it’s available in, this is the perfect colander, and your recipient is unlikely to have one already. It folds flat for storage and doesn’t rust or fall over easily like some. $14.95 at Amazon.
Snapware Glasslock Storage Containers – $29.99. These are the most perfectly designed storage containers. They’re made of glass, so they can go in the oven, microwave, and freezer just as easily as the refrigerator, and the lids never leak. I probably have 20 and use them constantly. The lids are plastic but BPA-free, and even when I’ve dropped them on my cement kitchen floor, they haven’t broken. Thank you, tempered glass.
Split Decision Pie Pan – Normally I’m not too keen on “novelty” bakeware (no, I do not need muffin pans shaped like a pair of jeans so I can make “muffin tops”). But this genuinely looks handy, particularly for a smaller family, and making half a pie is not easily done otherwise. I only wish it were NOT nonstick, as I am suspicious of the coating, but for a once-in-a-while treat like a pie, I think it’s okay. $11.99 at Amazon.
NSPottery Ring – This is made out of glazed ceramic. Wear bathroom tiles on your finger! It’s adjustable, which is both a negative (looks less expensive) and a positive (highly practical). Anyway, I think these simple, bold shapes are tops. $22 on Etsy.
‘Bonjour!’ Poster – Illustration by Edubarba out of Spain. If you were to want this for Christmas, order it NOW. I speak from experience that it takes a while to get here from Spain. $18.17 on Etsy.
Kate Spade Glitter Box Set – A set of 3 pairs of socks. $10 per pair is a bit on the high end for socks, but these are characteristically witty and one features gold polka dots.
‘Secret Agents I Met and Liked’ Notebook – Just the thing to keep track of the more amiable secret agents in your set. Archie Grand makes a wide variety of these blank notebooks with debossed silver foil lettering. My favorites are ‘Communists I Met and Liked’ (in red, naturally), ‘Shrinks I Met and Liked,’ and of course ‘Lovers I Met and Liked.’ $12.99 on Amazon, but cheap for cultivating your aura of intrigue.
Hanging Glass Feeder from Terrain – I love giving these as gifts, though in my case I get them at local epicurean grocery store Central Market, already fully loaded up. My favorite thing is to put a small ceramic figurine, such as a gorilla, in it. This one from Terrain is decently priced at $20, but you would need to add sand and airplants, cacti, or hens and chicks from your local nursery.
Designer, Maker, Thinker Pin Set – These enamel badges ($35) are excellent for a design colleague or salon buddy. I particularly like the “Thinker” pin, and am hoping they will complement them with other sets. I suggest: Iconoclast, Auteur, and Enfant Terrible. Anyone listening?
Big Skinny Wallet – These really are the most incredible wallets… there’s even a video demonstrating how it is they manage to violate the law of conservation of mass. My husband has been carrying a leather one for the last two years and it’s in great shape. Cheap at any price, but in this case the Leather Super Skinny was a mere $28.95 and has saved countless dollars in back pocket repairs.
Pop Chart Lab Posters – I’m feeling a bit weird making up this list for men, as I’d easily give a man most of the gifts I picked out above, barring the ring and socks (even then…). This is one of those gifts where you know the person’s interests—audiophilia, beer, video games, etc.—but you don’t know enough to pick out the most obscure IPA or have the budget to buy the $400 pair of headphones. These fall in the $20- to $30-something range, so they’re quite accessible when compared to importing a liqueur from Moldova.
The Affected Provincial’s Companion – “A diverse and hilarious collection of treatises, insightful essays, philosophical diagrams, saucy poetry and other amusing trifles, The Affected Provincial’s Companion will inspire you to transform yourself into a living work of art.” I could not have said it better myself. This seems to be out of print, but is available through many third-party sellers, and in the $5 range. Egads.
Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson – This book of adventures is certainly not the exclusive province of gentlemen. If you’re at a loss for a gift for male friend, as I so often am, Ronson’s work is often featured in The Guardian and GQ. He also wrote the movie The Men Who Stare at Goats and an upcoming fictionalized account of the life of Northern English comedian Frank Sidebottom. If you’d like to know how Insane Clown Posse reconciled its past work with their born-again Christianity, or follow (fake) psychic Sylvia Browne on a cruise, this book is for you. (Just under $20 for the hardcover version.)
Credit Card Knife by Iain Sinclair – It’s the size and shape of a credit card, and folds into a rust-free blade with a polypropylene body. $17.99 from Think Geek!
Takeya Glass Bottle with Silicone Sleeve – Excellent for fitness enthusiasts, office drones, and the paranoid, these Takeya bottles are some of the nicest I’ve seen. I even like them better than Kleen Kanteens, since they could be used for tea or other drinks, and they don’t dent. $15.99 at Amazon.
Dude, Sweet Chocolates – I think my husband and I showed up within two days of this chocolatier’s opening, and we’ve been faithful patrons ever since. How could anyone not be curious about this odd assortment? “Fungus Amongus Toffee, Yerba Mate Truffle, Albatross Fudge, Urranaga Bros. Fudge and Crack in the Box. In addition to that, our world famous Chubby Nuts and a bottle of our chocolate potion.” We’ve sent it to New Jersey and to Provence.
Sweet & Spicy Tomato Jam from In a Pickle – Everything I’ve tasted by this company out of Fort Worth is delicious, and I especially like this on a smoked gouda grilled cheese. The packaging is sharp, and the flavors are innovative, including blueberry lime jam and lemony pear vanilla bean jam. Locally, I’ve seen these at Empire Baking Co. and Bolsa Mercado, although there are several more retailers listed on their website.
Fischer & Wieser Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce – The best use for this (in my opinion) is to pour some over a brick of cream cheese and surround it with crackers. It’s weird and it’s good. The shipping is pricey on Amazon, but locally I get it at pretty much any grocery store.
For little kids, I like to buy toys by Plan Toys or Melissa & Doug, or books, and these are a few of my favorite things to give.
This is Rome by Miroslav Sasek – All the “This is” books are wonderful, especially This is Texas and This is London; I always hope it will inspire a love of travel someday.
I Like You by Sandol Stoddard – This small book will hopefully set the tone for your relationship with a little one for many years to come.
Warning: Do Not Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt – This is not in the usual canon of children’s books, and it’s quite fun to read together.
4M Tin Can Robot – My godsons fantasize about building their own robots all the time. The reviews of this are quite good, the price is fantastic, and it even comes in an easy-to-wrap box.
Half Magic by Edward Eager – Children find a coin that gives them half of what they wish for, so they have to wish for twice as much as they want. The wishing fantasy genre is a well-mined one, but this does it well and is perhaps a bit more accessible than E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It (also a good choice, with an added side effect of inspiring early Anglophilia). It can be a first chapter book.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg – I’ve ordered this for my oldest godson and am really looking forward to seeing what he thinks of it, and how many survivalist plans for living in unexpected situations we can dream up.
Kid Made Modern by Todd Oldham – Todd Oldham does a marvelous job of coming up with crafts that aren’t horrible to look at, and his art supplies available at Target are inspired. The only bad thing about this is that it’s not available in hardcover (just paperback) now.
Snap Circuits Jr SC-100 – Legos are wonderful, to be sure—but Snap Circuits kits take them to the next level by giving kids modular electrical elements to make their own burglar alarm, doorbell, and 98 other projects. This version is just a little over $20, but there is also a great one in the $45 range that allows you to make up to 300 projects.
Magic 8 Ball – This never gets old.
I hope this was helpful! Gift-giving is one of my top favorite activities, and I wrack my brain every year trying to get the best possible presents for people. Now, off to wear out my “Add to Cart” finger…