MY CHRISTMAS LIST has been the same my entire adult life: 12 pairs of matching black socks. My mother always throws in a few button-down shirts from the This Man's Done Breeding collection at Marshalls—but I don't need those. If I can harness the power of Christmas giving to get this one simple thing squared away for the year, I've won the game. Let the clapping man-children have their $200 wine openers and tasseled terrycloth shower shoes.
This year, however, a monkey wrench was thrown into my normally peaceable holiday plans.
"We want you to write a five-item holiday wish list for your column," my editor said last week.
"That's going to be hard," I said, "unless you count 12 pairs of Goldtoe Milan Comfort Tops five things."
"I don't. Food- and drink-related, locally available. On my desk, Thursday," he said. "Get thinking."
I mentally trawled the wealth of shops, cooks, and artisans I'd come to know this year. Bit by bit, useful gift ideas began to appear. Here are the best of the bunch, and while they can't ever be as satisfying as knowing you'll have matching socks when you wake, they are fine things to play with once that basic human need is satisfied.
1) Vintner's Harvest Wine Starter Kit
This kit has every piece of hardware you need to get your hands dirty with your own winemaking. It's far easier than trying to piece together stuff from Craigslist, and far less expensive than gathering equipment individually. With this kit, fruit and sugar, and about $10 of yeast and enzymes (available at F.H. Steinbart), a total novice can be making wine before he starts actually needing it for the day.
F.H. Steinbart Co., 234 SE 12th, $109.95
2) Emerson Wine Cooler (for Repurposing)
This isn't some poncey thing for wine. The temperature and humidity controls of a wine fridge make it an ideal environment for home charcuterie projects. "I absolutely recommend [a wine fridge] for anyone who is going to do home charcuterie," says Eric Finley of Chop Butchery and Charcuterie. "It's perfect for the job. After your meat has gone through the fermenting or curing process, it should be set at 56 degrees and 70 percent humidity, which is what these machines do. Open the door every day for a half hour for fresh air, and you're good to go."
Target, 9401 NE Cascades Parkway, starting at $89.99, depending on size
3) Portland Meat Collective Butchery Classes
Intangible gifts don't clutter the backs of drawers, waste no wrapping, and are not limited to "A Charitable Donation in Your Name Has Been Made to the Axis Deer Abatement Project of Outer Tomales Bay, California." I recently took a pig-head butchery class from Camas Davis of the Portland Meat Collective ["Barnyard Butchery," Food Issue, Nov 14], and the experience was enthralling. These small hands-on classes have students cutting, consulting on, and fabricating their own sausages, chops, roasts, and more. Long after the meat was gone I had a deeper appreciation for food, the butcher's craft, and what "nose to tail" means in real-world practice.
Portland Meat Collective, pdxmeat.com, usually $125 and up, but includes meat, materials, and hors d'oeuvres
4) Modernist Cuisine at Home by Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet
This book is the far more practical and affordable follow-up to the landmark Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a six-volume set that lists at $625. If Alton Brown and Cook's Illustrated got together with Ferran Adrià, and then found unlimited money to blow through (author Nathan Myhrvold is a former Microsoft bigshot), the results would look something like this. An information-dense 456 pages, this 400-recipe book showcases stunning photography, scientifically backed techniques, and clever tips for wonking out in your home kitchen. Ración chef Anthony Cafiero says, "[It's] perfect for the inventive home chef, with new techniques for old standards." If you're looking for a cookbook that actually means something to the recipient this year, leave Jamie Oliver's latest dash-and-slop catalogue on the shelf; Modernist Cuisine at Home is it.
Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, $98
5) Le Nez du Vin
Le Nez du Vin is an educational set of numerically coded aroma vials. But wait! Before you run out and buy one, I should explain further. It focuses on aromas commonly found in wine, but its usefulness is hardly limited to geeking out on Gamay. It's a useful tool for anyone interested in building a scent- and flavor-vocabulary: Our scent memories are filled with information, but naming a flavor in the absence of context often leaves a taster stymied. This kit helps you identify the flavors going on in anything you're tasting, from mushroom to saffron to "cut hay" (useful if you are a horse).
Wine Aromas, winearomas.com, begins at $119 & up