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The Gift of Giving

This post was going to be your run-of-the-mill gift guide.  All week, I’d been thinking of things you could get your food-iac friends and family.

And then, I sat down to write it.  I started and erased it three times.

Why was I having such a hard time writing such a simple post?

It might have something to do with a video I watched the other day of people waiting to get into a Victoria’s Secret once it opened on Black Friday.  The crowd brayed and yelled, pushing and elbowing their neighbours even though there was nowhere to go. Their nostrils flared, their eyes wide with a combination of fear and delight; it looked like a mosh pit, or dare I say it: a herd of cattle.  But that wasn’t what got me.

It was the look on the employees’ faces.

They were scared.  And I think it is no exaggeration to say that I think they were actually scared for their lives, because once the doors opened, they knew that flood of people would knock them over, stomp on them, hurt them, yell at them — all in the name of saving a few dollars for a present for someone they ostensibly really care about.

Have we possibly gotten away from the importance of this season, y’all?

We hear it every year, but I hope that I really get it this year.  This season is not about getting or giving more stuff.  This season commemorates a gift given to us, one of life and light in an otherwise dark world.  This season is about sharing that light with others, both those we love and those we don’t even know. It’s about counting our blessings, and celebrating in hope for the ones we pray for next year. And at a time of year where many of us have family to gather with and plenty of privileges, it’s a time to extend ourselves to those who have little to nothing or no one, because I imagine this is the time of year that the sense of lack hurts most.

“Ok little Miss Kill-Joy.  Does that mean we’re not exchanging presents this year?”

HECK NO!  I love me a present!  But I suppose I’m challenging us to go deeper with our gift-giving this year. Let’s actually observe what our friends and family truly need, and give in that direction. Someone told me about a gift a father gave his son: a pound of great coffee with a note attached: “This coffee only to be consumed when the two of us get together.”  Isn’t that great?  So in that spirit, here are some food-based gift ideas that might get us all thinking of giving in a different way this year, in a way that really embraces what this season is all about.

1) Service Gift Certificates

These are the sweetest of all.  Think of something you can do for a family member or a friend, and make gift certificates with these “services”: a scratch card with 5 coffee dates (you’re buying), breakfast in bed, a home-cooked meal, an offer to come take care of them when they next get sick.  Other ideas: mani-pedi dates, a foot rub at the end of a long day, or a written promise to do that one thing your friend has been asking you to do forever (go to that one museum/show/store), washing someone’s car, doing their laundry, babysitting their kids so they can go out for dinner with their significant other, organizing their kitchen if they’re awful at organizing (um, are my friends listening?!).  You can even make your certificates look really beautiful like these guys (pictured above) did!

Think about your loved ones for a spell, and I bet you’ll be able to come up with some really beautiful ideas that will not only be of service to your loved ones, but will touch them deeply when they realize that you’ve actually been listening to them.

2) Further Candles

I love these guys.  They collect used grease from restaurants such as Mario Batali & Nancy Silverton’s Mozza, refine it, use some of it as bio-diesel and turn the rest of it into a sublimely-fragranced line of candles and dish soap.  I can’t get enough of the fragrance; to me, it smells like a walk in the woods with a freshly showered man.  But that’s just me.  I’d like to give this to a friend who is always strapped for time with a note that says, “whenever you light this candle, please take three deep breaths before proceeding with the rest of your day, and know that I’m thinking about you.”

3) Kusmi Tea

My favorite teas on the planet are made by a French company called Kusmi.  This is how good they are: I dislike green tea with a passion. Their green tea? I will happily brew a whole pot and drink the lot. Their teas are delicately flavored, with a refined finish that makes each cup special. Even the tea bags themselves are beautiful, and it always seems like a shame to throw them away.  The tins are gorgeous, and bonus: your friend can use them to house something else once she’s supped all that good tea. My favorite is one called Sweet Love, a spicy concoction of black tea with licorice root, pink peppercorns and some other spices.  I’d pair the tea with a couple of pretty mugs, perhaps one with your initial, and one with hers (available here), with a promise to come over for a cup of tea once a month or whenever she needs it.

4) Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi

Bloggers and food writers seemingly everywhere are gushing about this cookbook, and I have to concur.  Every recipe is literally mouthwatering, and easy.  Heck, you don’t even have to make anything; you can just drool over the gorgeous photographs!  In any case, I would attach a note offering to cook through the book over the course of the year; you could even go through and tag those recipes that appeal to you, and write a sample menu for your first dinner together.

5) Cooking Classes

Whether it’s learning how to make jam or how to cut great sashimi, what a great way to spend time with a friend, AND learn something new. A couple of my friends took a cooking class together a few years ago and they still talk about how much fun it was.  Just make sure that it’s a class where you actually get to cook, rather than an observational class.  These usually last a few hours, so you’re guaranteed to spend some quality time together and make lasting memories!

6) Giving in Their Name

I love when people do this for me!  Offer someone three different charity programs to choose from; you’ll give to one of them in their name.  One of my favorites this year: Oxfam’s “Unwrapped” Campaign (full disclosure: I do represent Oxfam from time to time). You can buy needy families around the world anything from a vegetable garden, to a bee-rearing class, to even a cow!  It goes directly to them!  Isn’t that cool?  Heifer.org allows you to buy goats, llamas, even irrigation pumps on behalf of your friend. You could make a donation to a local food bank on behalf of your friend.  Another charity I work with here in LA, Harvest Home, will link you up with families they know who can’t afford to buy their children presents. You (and your friend) can help make this a holiday to remember!

See?  Isn’t this fun? Once you start thinking this way, you’ll find yourself coming up with lots of creative ways to show the ones you love how much you, well, love them. I’m not demonizing gift-giving or shopping for people at all. But no matter how much, or how little, money you have, the most valuable commodity we all have is time, and giving that to the people we love?  Those are the best presents (presence?) of all.

Aarti began cooking as a chubby kid, as soon as she realized that in order to satisfy her sweet tooth, she’d have to make dessert. It was only as an unemployed adult that she graduated to cooking other dinner courses, and once she did, she was hooked. Her blog, aartipaarti soon birthed a YouTube cooking-variety show of the same name, shot with her husband in her tiny Los Angeles apartment. After much coercing, she applied for season 6 of Food Network Star, was accepted, competed and won. She now hosts Aarti Party on Food Network, and appears on Cooking Channel’s Drop 5 Lbs with Good Housekeeping, Unique Eats and will host a new show, Taste in Translation, that debuts in January of 2013. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter (@aartipaarti) and Instagram, as well as her blog.

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