A Holiday Break from Boring Gifts

Forget socks, ties, and fruit cakes. These varied and unusual presents are as much fun to give as to get

By Thane Peterson

What to give as a holiday gift? I love Christmas but hate the consumerism that accompanies it. I always feel like I'm spending too much on things the recipients don't really want or need. So, I decided to put together a list of gifts that are relatively inexpensive and at least have the virtue of being cultural, socially responsible, or tasty. Here's what I came up with:

Wild Fruits and Compotes from Canada ($30 on up): Would marinated cattail hearts or jellied elderberries make a tasty addition to your next holiday feast? How about a little jar of pickled milkweed pods as a stocking stuffer? They're all available from Gourmet Sauvage, a terrific Quebec-based outfit whose name is French for "Wild Gourmet."

The people at Gourmet Sauvage have searched Canada's vast wilderness for wild fruits, berries, herbs, mushrooms, and other edibles that can be made into gourmet products. On the Web site are a wonderful assortment of jellies, jams, mustards, and vinegars, as well as recipes for things like fiddlehead salad and cloudberry duck marinade.

This is also a case of eating well by doing good. Wild food is the ultimate sustainable agriculture. And much of Gourmet Sauvage's harvesting is done by people in poor, remote communities where jobs are scarce. Prices range from $4 to $6 Canadian ($3 to $4.60 U.S.) for 110- milliliter jars up to $11 to $21 ($8.50 to $16 U.S.) for 500-ml jars -- so a basic gift package will run around $30 or $35 (U.S.) with shipping. Both phone (450 229-3277) and Internet service are available in English and French.

Membership in the American Chestnut Foundation (individual, $40): Here's an ideal gift for a grandparent or other older person who remembers the days when towering chestnut trees were still common in the Eastern U.S. Most native chestnuts died between 1904 and 1950, after a blight carried by Chinese chestnuts was introduced into the U.S. Now, most of the chestnuts you see are the scraggly Chinese variety, which looks something like an apple tree.

The Foundation, founded in 1983, is dedicated to reestablishing native chestnuts, which sometimes soared over 100 feet and had trunks up to six feet in diameter. It has funded scientists who are crossbreeding the American and Chinese varieties to come up with a blight-resistant American strain. If all goes well, the first such seedlings will be available around 2006. When enough are available to distribute to the general public, I expect to plant some and will urge neighbors, and readers to do the same.

Aaron Siskind 100 (powerHouse Books, $65): I've recently discovered the abstract photography of Siskind, who died in 1991 and is getting renewed attention because 2003 would have seen his 100th birthday. In most of the photos in this wonderful book, he sought out patterns in everyday sights -- graffiti or paint cracking on a wall, fallen leaves, or stone fences. The photos' resemblance to abstract paintings is quite astonishing, and once you've seen his work, you start to notice more of the beauty in the everyday life.

If you fall in love with his work, as I did, you should try to visit an exhibit on through Jan. 18 at the Newport Art Museum near the Rhode Island School of Design, where Siskind taught. For me, another revelation at the show were the wonderful large-scale color photos (printed on an ink-jet printer) of Neal Rantoul, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, who was one of Siskind's students.

Chocolate and/or bourbon-flavored cheese from Capriole Goat Cheese ($46 and up): Judy Schad, proprietor of this legendary Indiana outfit, loves to create odd new kinds of cheese. She's also fond of chocolate and Kentucky bourbon (her farm is just north of the Kentucky border) and those passions came together in her latest holiday creation. The Walk on the Wild Side Sampler includes both 8 ounces of chocolate and bourbon goat cheese and 8 ounces of Italian cheese flavored with pine nuts, pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes -- delivered by second-day air for $46.

Or you can make up your own gift box. I haven't tried the chocolate cheese yet, but she assures me it's delicious, especially when spiked with booze. "The Brown-Foreman [distillery] crowd loved it when I took it down to Kentucky for them to taste," she says. For delivery before Christmas, be sure to order by Dec. 15. If you miss the deadline, Schad plans more chocolate-cheese samplers for Valentine's Day. By Thane Peterson Tchotchkes from Reuben Belew Studio ($10 and up): The Reuben Belew Studio is a tiny storefront at 28 Jane St. in Manhattan's West Village. Proprietor Anita Belew mainly makes architectural ceramics there, but she also has a retail store that sells gifts that she and various friends and students have made by hand. Some, such as a tile-topped coffee table for $850, are expensive, but you'll also find many inexpensive stocking-stuffer-type gifts.

Among my favorites are hand-painted ceramic Christmas scenes for $60, mistletoe tiles for $26, refrigerator magnets for $10, and beautiful ceramic switch plates to replace the ugly plastic ones over the light switches on your walls ($35-$55). One for a child's bedroom has a blue seahorse clinging to it. I'm taking a class from Belew and have seen some of these things being made. I can testify that the effort that goes into these creations makes the prices a bargain.

Mystery Books by Henning Mankell (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $13 each in paperback): No holiday is complete without a good mystery for when you aren't busy shopping or digesting food. My current favorite mystery writer is Mankell, a Swede. Kurt Wallender, the books' hero, is a moody, middle-age detective in a small Swedish town who, improbably, gets caught up in all sorts of international intrigue. Mankell spends part of each year in Mozambique, so his stories also often have African connections.

The Wallender mysteries are full of dyspeptic commentary on the decline of Swedish society that appeals to my Scandinavian-American way of looking at things. Mankell, however, seems likely to gain a much broader audience soon because he was recently written up favorably in The New York Times. My only regret is that in the last year I've read all of the half-dozen Wallender books, so I have no new one to devour over the holidays.

Smoked Ham from Father's Country Hams ($50 or so): I wouldn't want to start a fight by suggesting that Father's, out of Bremen, Ky., (877 525-4267) makes the best country ham in America -- but it's gotta rank right up there. This is old-timey ham, hickory smoked and aged for nine months, and it has a strong taste that city slickers weaned on heavily processed low-fat foods may not appreciate. But if you like country cooking, this is the genuine article. A 16-pound whole ham will set you back a little over $50, with shipping and handling. Father's also sells sliced ham, hickory-smoked bacon and cheese, biscuit mix, barbecue rubs, and various other down-home delicacies.

Lee Bontecou: A Retropective (Abram's, $45): Bontecou is one of the greatest living American artists -- and one of the least known. That's because, three decades ago, just as she was becoming famous, she retired to rural Pennsylvania and stopped showing her work. Most art experts thought she had died or stopped creating, but in fact she has been quietly working away, supporting herself by teaching art classes in Brooklyn.

She was rediscovered in 2003, when she agreed to a retrospective of her career, which is up at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until Jan. 11. Now she's red-hot: One of her canvas-and-metal constructions sold for $456,000 at a Sotheby's auction on Nov. 12, 10 times the her previous record. This book is a wonderful introduction to her work if you can't see the exhibit, which moves on to Chicago and New York in 2004.

Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues (HarperCollins, $27.95): The hottest coffee table book of the season is probably According to the Rolling Stones (Chronicle, $40), in which the members of the rock group ruminate on their careers and influences. That book is fine as far as it goes, but if you really want to know where the Stones came from, check out Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues. It gives the lowdown on the African-American blues players who originally inspired Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Keith Richards to make music -- people like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Son House, and Robert Johnson.

The book is a companion to the PBS TV series on the blues that first aired in September. It features essays by film directors who appeared in the documentary, including Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, and Germany's Wim Wenders.

You can also buy companion CDs featuring the music of key players. Listen to these laments, and your own post-holiday blues will soon fade into insignificance by comparison.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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