I had mixed feelings about doing this gift guide again, because truthfully, I'm pretty sick of stuff right now. And I was feeling that way even before I watched "The Story of Stuff," a new 20-minute film about what exactly our insatiable urge to consume is doing to our earthly home, and to each other. It's the latest Web creation of Free Range Studios, which brought us the Meatrix.
But alas, few of us are as organized as Jennifer aka Baklava Queen, who has cornered the market on local flour in central Ohio and has baked enough cookies, preserved enough jams, and infused enough vinegars for friends and family to give Ma Ingalls a run for her bonnet; see "Baking spirits bright (and other homemade holiday gifts)." Nor have most families I know converted to the higher state of being that a friend's has, agreeing to give only gifts that aren't bought — they can be made, cooked, or recycled. (I'm hoping to get mine on board next year.)
So we Ethicureans went ahead and put together a list of ideas that won't leave a bad taste in your mouth, whether giving or receiving. (We don't get a kickback from any of the sources.) Last year's list has a lot of evergreen ones worth mentioning, like Heifer International, through which you can help needy families become more food secure through a flock of chicks, a beehive, dairy cows, and other livestock. And we probably don't have to tell you that there's great locally made gifts to be found at most farmers markets, from honeys and jams to sachets of lavender, cedar, and pine.
Show someone you carry
Know someone who likes to bring leftovers for lunch? Give them a tiffin, the tiered stainless-steel food carriers used all over India, particularly in Mumbai. Jennifer has a three-tiered one and swears by it for carrying her lunch to work, where she sets it on a radiator to heat up, or for transporting dishes to a friend's house. Hers was a gift, but Janet (who covets it) has found them for sale at To-Go Ware, which also offers bamboo flatware and a carry bag for the lunch kit.
Janet also has her eye on this tough reusable shopping bag that stays open by itself for loading, which would be really handy when you're fumbling with your hands full of potatoes and onions at the farmers market.
Adopt a tree
Lucky Jenni has her own olive tree — in Italy. The folks at Nudo (who include grove owner and former Junkyard Wars/Scrapheap Challenge host Cathy Rogers) offer several varietals of olive trees for "adoption" from their small-scale, pesticide-free groves at the foot of the Apennine mountains. They will ship a couple of liters of olive oil in the spring, and more oil, including some infused with lemons or chilis, in the fall. Unfortunately the Dec. 10 deadline to order to ensure Christmas delivery of your adoption papers to the U.S. has just passed, but you could always print out an IOU. (The deadline is Dec. 13 in the EU, and Dec. 20 in the UK.)
Alternatively, try pestering esteemed writer and peach farmer Mas Masumoto to re-open his Adopt an Elberta Peach Tree program for 2008. This "adopt a tree" (and pick the fruit) approach is a genius idea that more farmers should investigate.
Have ham, will travel
Whether you live in Missouri, or are traveling to non-Ethicurean relatives for Christmas dinner and haven't lined up a locally raised Christmas turkey, roast beef, duck, or goose, Elanor recommends ordering a ham from Patchwork Family Farms, a cooperative of small pork producers coordinated by the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. They have ham and gift boxes from small, pasture-based family farms in Missouri available for holiday purchase (last day to order: Dec 14). This is a great option for the holiday ham if you live in the state, though they will ship elsewhere. Call their office at (573) 449-1336 or email mon...@morural.org by Friday.
Ricki Carroll of the New England Cheesemaking Company has taught thousands of people to make cheese, including no less than Barbara Kingsolver in her bestseller "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" (read cheesemaking excerpt). Her kits start at $25 for a simple mozzarella and ricotta set.
And if you know someone who's into fermented foods like sauerkraut or kim chi, chances are good that, like me, they lust after these spendy German-made Harsch crocks, with their water-sealing system that allows fermentation gases to escape without allowing air to enter the crock pot. No more skimming scum from your kraut! Also good for brining pickles.
Speaking of pickling, our canning guru Jennifer says, "If I were to purchase something for a friend who was just starting out with home food preservation, I'd get the beginning canning kit from Lehman's (a nearby hardware store frequented by the Amish and other homesteaders, not to mention tourists)." I browsed Lehman's website just long enough to feel my consumerist urges reawakening, so I stopped.
Locally made chocolates
Jenni recommends Seattle chocolatier Theo, the only roaster of organic cocoa beans in the US. She says, "As an added bonus, their origin bars are sans milk and soy — great for those of us with a laundry list of food allergies. They're all great for baking; I like the Madagascar one best right out of the wrapper." Janet in Lawrence, Kansas, likes her locally made Christopher Elbow Chocolates.
Curl up with a good book
Winter wouldn't be winter without a good novel. Elanor recommends "The Master Butcher's Singing Club" by Louise Erdrich. "Set in North Dakota, it's a wonderful story of a German immigrant family, small-town Great Plains life, butchery, and love," she sighs. "Butchery and love... what a combo."
Meanwhile, I've just started but am already highly entertained by "All Over Creation," by Ruth Ozeki, who wrote "My Year of Meat" (one of my favorite novels when I was a vegetarian). This one's a fast-paced novel about an Idaho potato-growing family, agribusiness, and eco-activism. And it has a blurb from Michael Pollan. Need I say more?
Jennifer, meanwhile, is still trying to get her hands on a copy of "The Curious Gardener's Almanac," which looks really interesting.
On a trip to Oregon, I discovered these cool little book-journals made by an artsy couple in Portland, OR, under the name Ex Libris Anonymous. They recycle and bind old books into one-of-a-kind notebooks with acid-free paper, retaining a few of the pages with neat illustrations, etc. I picked up one made from the "I Hate to Cook Cookbook," which I've already given away, and "The Crockpot Cookbook," destined to become my dinner-party and potluck diary. Their website has all kinds of fun titles like the one at right, or for just $9, you can send them a favorite old book and they will journal-ize it for you.
Jenni chides me that last year's guide had an attractive countertop compost pail, "but its filter didn't keep the odor in or the fruit flies out. Air circulates freely through this Biobag Maxair II Bucket one, so trimmings aren't as likely to rot while they're still in your kitchen." The "biobags" that fit inside are compostable in your own backyard, or via Seattle's and other cities' yard-waste bins.
Plastic is just so unfantastic
With bisphenol A all over the news, you owe it to your loved ones to stop them from reusing their plastic water bottles — even retire their Nalgenes if they have them — and upgrade to a stainless steel Klean Kanteen instead. (Note that Klean Kanteen bottles are made in China, which the company addresses in its FAQs.)
We know you use canvas market bags, but what about storing produce in the fridge? Ecobags makes cotton replacements for keeping your veggies fresh — and they're washable and reusable.
The a-maizeing documentary "King Corn" is now available on DVD, just in time to share the kernels of truth with your friends.
If you're not jammed for time…
Winter is citrus season in California and Florida, the perfect time to make marmalade for all the sweet folks in your life. "A good friend of mine makes grapefruit-ginger marmalade every winter and it is absolutely fabulous," says Elanor. 'It's easy to adapt your favorite marmalade recipe by adding a cup or two of chopped candied ginger (not regular — the flavor doesn't come through) to the pot along with the fruit. Recipes vary, but her favorite is pretty simple, similar to the recipe here. If you've never made marmalade before but are interested in trying, this site has an amazingly detailed explanation, with pictures. No need to buy all the special stuff they recommend as long as you have the basics: two very large pots, jars and lids, a pair of tongs, and a funnel with a wide mouth. And for your own health, avoid the teflon-coated pot, please; just use a nonreactive one."
'Tis the season
Fill a jar with fancy salt for rubbing chickens or roasts. All you need is coarse sea salt and some herbs from your backyard, dried (a few days hung by my oven does the trick), chopped, and mixed together. Rosemary is a winner; I'm thinking of trying a little sage.
While we're buying locally made beer and wine as much as possible, none of us are quite up to making either ourselves, or distilling spirits. But infusing alcohols, that's something we can handle. And they make great gifts for yourself cocktail-lovers. Three of Elanor's favorites: ginger-infused vodka, cardamom-pear brandy, and habanero tequila.
Her instructions: To make the first, peel part of a ginger root and slice the ginger into spears that will fit through the mouth of the bottle. Stuff in a handful or two and let it steep for at least a week (the longer the better) before giving it away, or put it in several smaller bottles to give (distribute the ginger evenly among them). With brandy, add slivers of dried pear and a small handful of cardamom pods (not seeds). Let steep a few days. The cardamom starts getting overwhelming after a few weeks, but not to worry — it'll be gone by then. For the tequila, add three habanero chiles, seeded and stemmed, to a bottle of tequila and let steep two days. Do a taste-test and steep a few more days if you like it really spicy. Strain out the chiles and put the tequila back in the bottle. Your friends have never had a margarita like the ones made with this stuff.
Make someone a recipe box
If you've got a friend, younger sibling, or child who's just starting to cook, this is a great idea from Elanor. All you need a box, some index cards (or recipe cards if you want to get a little fancier) and a little time each night to write down a few of your favorite dishes. "I made one for my brother when he went off to college-- a collection of easy recipes that I thought he could manage and that would (hopefully) encourage him to try his hand at cooking," says Elanor, adding that a friend of hers made one that was entirely dessert recipes. She admits that the writing is a bit labor intensive, but suggests that you see it as an opportunity to go back through old cooking magazines/cookbooks and remind yourself of all the recipes you'd wanted to try but forgot about. John aka Man of La Muncha pipes in with a tip for the lazy: Many printers can be adjusted to print to recipe card size, and some recipe sites will format their recipes just for the cards.