Any minute now, millions of holiday gift baskets, with their waxy cheeses and gathered cellophane, will start arriving at millions of homes, to the utter non-thrill of their recipients. Forget the proverbial fruitcake— nothing says “eh” like these things. Nothing gives a clearer signal that, with the click of the mouse, you’ve been crossed off someone’s list.
Impersonal as they can seem, some are at least luxurious. For example, Eli Zabar’s Vinegar Factory sells 15 different themed baskets. These cover the basic occasions, from Sympathy (cheese, crackers, cookies, fruit) to Chanukah (menorah-shaped brioche, Turkish Delight, candles), and also many versatile arrangements like “NYC Deli Basket” and “Cocktail Basket”. Personally, I wouldn’t mind receiving “Eli in a Basket”, which includes fresh bread, Eli’s olive oil, granola, and caviar. The problem with these is the price. All but one of the selections starts at $100 or more for the smallest size.
It’s a shame, really, because the idea of giving a special and edible present is actually a nice one. Instead of having to figure out what so-and-so “needs”, which is usually mysterious and un-fun, we should, as New Yorkers, share something delicious—especially with those who don’t live in such delicious places. Just as vacationers bring home delicacies from far-away lands for the poor schmucks they leave behind (hi), we should regale our aunts and stepbrothers with the exotic flavors of the City. It just shouldn’t feel like an afterthought—or cost a hundred dollars.
Maybe it’s just that I’m broke, but this year, I’m tapping into my inner Martha to make some anti-gift basket gift baskets. It will involve no baking of cookies, either. I’ve been down that road before and I’d rather schlep all over the five boroughs collecting pre-packaged goodies than clean up my tiny kitchen after each batch.
First, let’s start with the vessel (woven or otherwise). The container itself is a major factor in why a basket costs so much more than the sum of its contents. (Eli’s are wooden and come from France. My loved ones will experience no such thing.) Like any retailer, we can use packaging to make it seem more special—but special-ness can come cheap. Luckily, that’s what Chinatown is for. You can pick up bamboo baskets for a few dollars each at Pearl River, which can later be used as trays.
If you’re giving Asian delicacies, pack the food inside a steamer. A regular Chinese one works for small items, but an unassuming little grocery on Bayard Street called Udom Corp. sells Thai steamers, which are much better looking and less familiar (i.e. more special). The biggest, for $8, is perfect. While you’re there, pick up some red curry paste, sriracha hot sauce, fish sauce, and a package of rice noodles, and for about $15, your adventurous auntie in Ohio is off the list (with love).
Customized gifts can be simple enough, too. Your teenaged cousin is seriously considering going vegan? And she lives in Texas? Imagine her eyes if she saw Whole Foods. It may seem like nothing to us, but a few fake meat items and a vegan cookbook packed in an earth-friendly satchel will make her feel like someone understands. And you do—you know that she’ll probably be making an exception for cheese pretty soon. Then fish, chicken, and eventually, on special occasions, she’ll think, if the roast beef is already dead, who does it hurt if I have a bite? You support her dietary experiments, but you’re not going to invest too much in them.
The possibilities are nearly endless. Nostalgic grandpa? Head to the Lower East Side for jelly rings and a babka from Russ & Daughters and a salami from Katz’s. Swing by the farmer’s market for some old fashioned hard pretzels. Your fun-loving Philly who throws theme parties? Sunrise Mart has all the makings for sushi night, though you probably want to let her find the fish herself. And you can always follow the more traditional “gourmet” mould for less, too, by going to the source instead of the fancy market that has it all.