Remember fruitcake? Fruitcake used to be the punch line to a thousand daytime talk show jokes about unwanted gifts. Old people gave you fruitcakes; fruitcakes were bad; nobody ever ate fruitcakes. And you know what? They weren't wrong. Fruitcake really is horrible. But how does that one stigmatized product equip us to shop for the nation's ever-growing foodie sector? Worse, what well-intentioned gift will become tomorrow's punch line? I've thought about this a lot, having both given and received a lot of good and bad food presents over the last few years. So here, for your last-minute use, are what I consider some of the best foodie Christmas presents on the market.
First, though, a word about bad foodie presents. Elaborate specialty equipment is a killer, whether it's a fondue pot, as in days of old, or its modern equivalent, a raclette grill. Things that take up a bunch of space and are seldom if ever used aren't presents; they're burdens. You might as well give somebody a second mortgage. Weird condiments like truffle oils will generally gather dust. And big cookbooks? Guilt machines. They sit there and reproach you for not cooking from them.
No, good food presents are things that somebody either didn't know about or wouldn't splurge on for themselves, and which will continue to give happiness for a long time. Things like:
The Bacon of the Month Club. This has been my go-to present for years. The concept is simple: every month, a pound of bacon comes in the mail from a different artisanal producer. There's jowl bacon, Allan Benton's intensely smoky stuff, the heat and tang of Ozark Mountain pepper bacon, a different one every four weeks. There are six- or 12-month options. You can also send a bacon cornucopia with all the bacons at once (prices for these start at $27.95), but I caution against this, as it leads to a bacon orgy the recipient will later want to forget. Order from the Grateful Palate (888-472-5283) in California.
Olive Oil Worth Using. The best olive oil I've ever found by far is the stuff imported directly by Fairway Market in New York City (disclosure: I once had a radio show on a network of which Fairway was a sponsor). The bottles are big, so you don't need to worry about using too much, and they're not grossly expensive, either. I pour these olive oils over everything, and I'm not afraid to cook with them, either, despite all the ridiculous warnings about how you should never do so. If it's good, it's good! My favorites are the intensely fruity Gata-Hurdes oil from Spain ($17.99 for a liter); for pasta, I go for the amazingly nutty, fragrant Trevi-Umbria ($13.99 for a liter).
Keeping It Veal. It's a tricky business to buy meat for other people. The best option is a gift certificate at the best service butcher in town, so your recipients can pick their own steak out; but how many towns still have service butchers? That's why I sometimes send a few veal rib chops via mail order from Allen Brothers in Chicago; orders start at $99.95 for four 10 oz. chops. Good veal rib chops are expensive and hard to find, and few people ever buy them for themselves. These ones from Chicago come frozen solid so there is no danger of spoilage. You might also want to send along some advice on how to cook it, though. You don't want anybody microwaving these babies.
One Knife to Rule Them All. Anybody who cooks a lot needs a good knife. But a great knife is something altogether different. These knives are a joy to slice with; when sharpened correctly, they move through vegetables like a light saber and give your cooking a level of precision you normally associate with brain surgeons and sushi masters. You can get a six-inch Shun Bob Kramer chef's knife at Sur La Table for $269.95, the cost of a big meal. It's a work of art, created by the foremost knifesmith in America, a wonder of steel and fire and Damascus forging. Of course, if you really want to blow someone's mind, and if he or she truly deserves it, you can get the summit of the world's knife arts: a mirror-finished yanagi, which is crafted by the Japanese "living national treasure" Keijiro Doi and, depending on the size, ranges in price from $800 to $1,350.
Food Books, Not Cookbooks. While I wouldn't recommend cookbooks for the most part, there are a few books anybody who loves food should own. Calvin Trillin's classic The Tummy Trilogy is one such, a seminal exploration of what it means to have your life revolve around hamburger joints and forgotten barbecue stands. Nigel Slater's Toast and A.J. Liebling's Between Meals are both unforgettable memoirs, musts for any food person. And no library can be complete without Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's ridiculously quotable 1825 collection of crackpot aphorisms, The Physiology of Taste. A subscription to some of the journals not likely to be found on the newsstand can be nice too. Serious cooks want Cook's Illustrated (a year for $24.95), and even more serious ones want a journal called The Art of Eating (a year for $48), put out quarterly by a bookish fellow named Ed Behr. More thoughtful types might enjoy Gastronomica (a year for $50), a free-ranging collection of essays and articles about food as its eaten across the world. Or a specialty journal like the newly launched BBQ ($8.99 an issue), a Popular Plates magazine edited by road-food legends Jane and Michael Stern.
Other good choices include a bottle of fine Port or Madeira, which someone can pour a little of when you're there and then close back up for later; black Perigord truffles (1 oz. for $59.99), and specific instructions on how to use them (hint: shave them on fettuccine Alfredo); a real barbecue with a wood-burning offset firebox, whether cheap or expensive; and any number of other things that people might actually get some use and pleasure out of. Remember: if they don't use it, or eat it, then what's the point?
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.