Somebody’s got to be a Scrooge. It’s only been a few short weeks after giving thanks, but I’ve already made a list of holiday gifts I’d have to say, “No, thanks” to, and imagine that many other moderate to serious cooks would, too. We, the avid, maybe obsessive foodies who liken ourselves to chefs, appreciate that so many try to give us the perfect gift to further our hobbies with for the holidays. It’s not about disrespect. But having been through many holiday seasons of this, I can offer some suggestions to avoid the awkwardness of a tool never used.
Bear in mind however that no cook is cookie-cutter, so to speak, and we all have our own tendencies. So my general tips here are pretty much null as long as you know the kind of home cook you’re dealing with. And I can’t say I haven’t been inspired to cook with something because it was given to me as a gift. But if I had to make a list, and check it twice, these are the top ten gifts I would NOT give. Got any no-no’s of your own? Leave a note to Santa in the comments below.
1. Cute, ruffly apron
With gingham or floral print, halter-top straps and tiers at the skirt — we’ve all seen them and somebody gets me one of these about once a year. They are cute, yes, but personally, I’d rather be splattered with sauce than look like a doll or lace doily while I cook. Yes, dear, those biscuits are coming right out of the oven… No dear, those aren’t yesterday’s tulips in the vase…
What to get instead: Clean, white farmhouse-style dishtowels. You can always use more.
2. Retro-looking appliances
They don’t make ‘em like they used to — at least maybe not in quality. As for appearances, it seems that every blender and popcorn-maker has a circa-1950s air nowadays. I guess that’s all fine and dandy, but as someone who’s trying to propagate the everyday act of cooking today, I don’t need to be reminded that it’s an adorably oldschool thing. Also, that chrome standing juicer works no better than the much less wieldy hand-held kind that you squeeze.
What to get instead: A manual pasta crank, new or old. (I know of restaurants that still use these time-tested devices.)
3. Garlic baker
Seriously? I don’t see why these things exist. Roasted garlic does taste great, and it’ll probably make a pretty sweet addition to something you cook a lot. But you could just as well throw garlic in some covered vessel — or better yet, the cavity of a chicken — to get the job done. Wrap foil over a ramekin in a pinch. It’s okay that it’s not shaped like the ingredient in question.
What to get instead: Four ramekins. Works for serving, baking, and anything else you can think of.
4. Preposterously shaped cake molds
Apparently there’s a whole contingent of bakers who enjoy impressing their friends with cakes shaped like a medieval fort, a pirate’s ship, the Taj Mahal, or Mars in 2200… but I’m not one of them. I’d applaud anyone for getting the pointy peaks of their cake to come out cleanly from one of these molds, but wonder how to decorate it with icing next to justify this effort?
What to get instead: A Silpat.
5. Fondue set
Why aren’t I invited to any of these fondue parties? Oh right, because they rarely exist. Looking at the fondue sets in a kitchen store aisle always fills me with the inspiration to throw a fondue party and very soon, but this dream evaporates within five seconds after I walk away. I’m not sure why it has to be this way; but sadly, devastatingly, it is. Sniff.
What to get instead: A good, small, stainless steel saucepan.
6. Decorative salt and pepper shakers (that don’t grind)
If your giftee is really into food, he or she will likely have no use for ground black pepper flakes. I don’t trust anything that small it can fit through the tiny holes in traditional pepper shakers, and pre-ground pepper tastes nothing like the peppercorns that are noisily crushed on the spot. I suppose you can get those nifty magnetized salt and pepper grinders that attach to your fridge, but after trying them out, my hand got more workout for much less output, and they need to be refilled too quickly.
What to get instead: A spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
7. Baked good mixes and spice blends
Pancake mixes, banana bread mixes, cookie mixes, spice blends, and hoards of pre-made sauces all take away the fun and creativity of cooking to the cook. They won’t teach you how to become a better baker over time, as with making cookies from scratch, but rather begin you on a path of pre-mixed dependency, like a drug. And similarly, you won’t learn what to combine from the spice cabinet in order to get an authentically Moroccan flavor if you always just use a spice blend.
What to get instead: Mason jars or small glass canisters for storing spice.
9. Too-specific dishware
My motto is, if it’s only good for one purpose, it serves no purpose in my kitchen. And I get a little suspicious about what’s on my plate if the plate itself has to announce that it’s holding “pie.” So unless your giftee really likes corn, or has tons of space to store dusty stuff, you can probably do away with the corn dishes — or eggplant dishes, or “brunch” plates, or…
What to get instead: A white, rectangular serving plate. It’s versatile and non-committal.
8. So-so knife set
Knives are pretty tricky to buy for a cook. If he or she has a specific request for a set, then go for it. But there are a lot of choices when it comes to buying knives, even from a leading manufacturer. Many of them offer a handful of “entry-level,” or lower-price point sets of knives that are nowhere near the quality of their top-notch ones. If you really want to make an impressive gift with this, look for forged steel knives and long warranties, or give individual knives, like a good chef’s knife or a Japanese fish knife, one at a time each to ensure the kind of quality that your cook will appreciate (and that you can afford).
What to get instead: A knife roll (carrier bag).
10. Vintage seed ad poster or calendar
These prints look great hanging on a kitchen wall. But they originally served only to sell seeds — meaning, you grow the fruit or vegetable in the picture yourself, and that job ain’t always so pretty. So you can better capture the spirit of the poster art by growing some food yourself, or just appreciating those who did and the final product on the plate. And by the way, many seed banks still have some really beautifully illustrated packets (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds to name one), filled with actual seeds, so you can always give your cook a bunch of those to frame (or plant) as well.
What to get instead: An indoor herb-growing kit.