We’re almost done: Just two more rounds of holiday parties to survive — I mean, enjoy — along with all the customs and traditions that come with them.
In our informal world, a lot of those traditions are falling by the wayside, and I’m fine with that. I think Evite has plenty of advantages over embossed invitations. And I much prefer a raucous buffet to a sit-down dinner with placecards.
But there’s one fading custom I’d love to keep alive: The good old-fashioned hostess gift. (Even if your hostess is a host, of course.)
It feels good, as the giver, to press a little something into your host’s hands, before you even take off your coat, and say, “This is for you.” It’s a little tangible way to say, “I know you put a lot of effort into this party. It’s like a gift for us guests. And I want you to have a gift, too.” Without, of course, having to say all that over the noise of that raucous buffet.
Wine and flowers will do the trick, of course, but both have the feeling of being for the party and not for the host herself. I like to look for something she wouldn’t feel obligated to open and share at the party. This is for her. Also:
• It shouldn’t be large or expensive, just a modest “thank you.”
• I like something consumable — no need to clutter up anyone else’s kitchen or shelves.
• It should not be perishable. Who knows what your host’s plans look like for the rest of the holidays.
• It should be a treat, something people wouldn’t necessarily buy for themselves.
• It needn’t be in sharing proportions. After all the gregariousness of the holidays, maybe your host wants to put her feet up and enjoy a bite of toffee in solitude.
• It’s nice when the gift is consumable as is, without any cooking. I make exceptions for handy but very special ingredients like a nice oil or vinegar.
• Look for something in such pretty packaging that all you have to do is stick a bow on it. That way, you don’t have to go to the trouble of wrapping it and your host doesn’t have to wonder whether she needs to unwrap it right away or wait.
I took a quick tour of my favorite local stores, and this is what I found.
1. Bittersweet Farm Ruby Red Popcorn and Golden Fig Chocolate Salt
Golden Fig, $5.95 and $7
Here’s something I never would have thought of on my own: Popcorn from Bittersweet Farm in Lake Elmo and the Golden Fig’s own chocolate salt blend. But as soon as I said I was looking for a great hostess gift and added, “How about something savory?” the helpful staff at the Golden Fig led me right to it. And what a great idea.
The Golden Fig on Grand Avenue in St. Paul is hostess gift central. Nearly every item in the store fits my criteria for a great hostess gift. They’ll even wrap it up for free. And if you’re feeling fancy, you can pick out a handful of items to pack in a vintage cigar box ($5), to be wrapped in cellophane and tied with a bow.
2. Talmadge Farms Hot Green Tomato Pickles
Golden Fig, $13.5o
“These are flying off the shelf,” the staff at the Golden Fig told me. A big jar of tiny pickled green tomatoes, grown and canned in Duluth. It looks like enough for a whole year of bloody Marys. Or martinis, if that’s your thing.
3. Rogue Chocolate
Local newcomer Rogue Chocolatier is starting a quiet revolution in the way we think about chocolate. Owner and chocolate maker Colin Gasko buys the cacao beans and does the whole eight-step process for turning them into chocolate, all on his own. I got mine at the Golden Fig, but France 44, the St. Paul Cheese Shop, Surdyk’s, Kitchen Window, and Local D’Lish all carry Rogue chocolate bars — as long as they can keep them on the shelves, that is.
4. Allegro Coffee Company Drinking Chocolate
Whole Foods, $9.99
You like hot chocolate? Well, this is an entirely different thing from hot chocolate. By different, I mean way better. It’s like a melted chocolate bar in your cup. In fact, a little espresso cup, rather than a big old mug, usually suffices. This is Whole Foods’ own brand, which comes in a handful of varieties with different flavor profiles. But we also like Schokinag Drinking Chocolate from Germany.
5. Potter’s Crackers and Quince & Apple Shallot Confit
St. Paul Cheese Shop and France 44, $6.99 and $7.99
Here’s a pair of Madison-made foods that go great together: A sweet and savory shallot jam made by the adorable husband-and-wife team behind Quince and Apple, and crisp, just-salty-enough crackers made by the equally adorable Peter Potter and his mother. (Should adorability matter when it comes to food? I don’t know, but it seems like it does.) Shallot Confit is a nice choice because it’s so versatile — on crackers with cheese, on top of a pork chop, on a roast beef sandwich — but there are sweeter flavors available, like a gingery orange-lemon marmalade.
6. Fleur de Sel
St. Paul Cheese Shop and France 44, $12
Fleur de sel is a treat for a cook (or anyone who likes a nice fried egg) to have in the kitchen, but not one you’re likely to buy for yourself. While the price might seem a little nutty for about a cup of salt, this isn’t an ingredient you use even by the teaspoonful — just a few flakes finish off a dish nicely. Your friend will be enjoying this, and thinking of you, all year long.
Patisserie 46, $1.95 each
Petite, crispy, chewy, and intensely flavored (more flavorful, actually, than other macarons we’ve had), and so, so pretty. Macarons — especially the perfectly executed beauties from Patisserie 46 — are just about the perfect hostess gift. Imagine your host, after the last guest has left and the last glass has been washed, sinking into the couch and enjoying one intense, solitary bite.
8. S-Squared Toffee
Local D’Lish, $6.99
Two friends — Susie and Suzanne — met while training for a marathon and now make and sell candy together. This toffee (they call it “buttercrisp”) is indeed crispier and less tooth-breakingly hard than other toffee, and so rich that just a bite suffices. I got mine at Local D’Lish, but S-Squared toffee is also in co-ops all around the Twin Cities, Bibelot shops, CorAzoN, Surdyk’s, Sugar Sugar, and a couple dozen other local stores.
9. Lacey Sue Z. cookie mix
Local D’Lish, $8.75
The queen of the local food scene wants to make your post-holiday cookie baking a little easier and bring a little cheer to families at risk. Proceeds from Sue Zelickson’s cookie mix benefit Perspectives, which serves families through supportive housing and children’s programs in St. Louis Park. Even if your host is Not a Mix Person, she will appreciate having this quick mix in the cupboard for the story behind it and the tasty cookies it makes. Also available at Epitome in the Edina Galleria, CorAzoN, the Golden Fig, and the Mill City Farmers Market.
10. Olive oil and vinegar
Vinaigrette, $7-8 each
This gift is as much fun to buy as it is to give and use. At Vinaigrette you are not only allowed, you are encouraged — nay, implored! — to try the dozen or so varieties of olive oil and vinegar on offer. Around the Mediterranean, many of the year’s first pressings of olive oil are available mid-December, so this is a great time to buy. And the classy little bottles, filled right in front of you, with your purchase warmly handwritten on the side, are pretty, perfectly sized gifts.
Local food shop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul
790 Grand Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
Bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Minneapolis
Shop online or look for bars at local shops.
Whole Foods Market
National chain of specialty grocery stores
Whole Foods Market Minneapolis
3060 Excelsior Blvd
Minneapolis, MN 55416
Whole Foods Market St. Paul
30 S Fairview Ave
St Paul, MN 55105
St. Paul Cheese Shop
Cheese shop near Macalester in St. Paul
1573 Grand Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
Wine and cheese shop in Linden Hills in Minneapolis
4351 France Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55410
Wine Shop: 612.925.3252
Cheese Shop: 612.278.4422
Bakery in Kingfield, Minneapolis
4552 Grand Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55419
Local foods store in the Warehouse District
208 N 1st St
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar in Minneapolis
5006 Xerxes Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55410