Top | Our Table

To use or not to use

(article, Caroline Cummins)

In holiday seasons past, we've run stories on kitchen gifts both parsimonious and profligate. We've even run a story incorporating both kinds of gifts, since one cook's oddball indulgence is another cook's absolute essential. 

Every year, it seems, the same problem comes up: Do you give a fellow cook something practical but pedestrian, or something whimsical but maybe just what he wanted?

Are you, in other words, cautious or reckless in the gift-giving department?

Former Culinate columnist Matthew Amster-Burton, who's currently in Japan studying traditional cooking techniques — ramen and rice balls, anyone? — offered to bring me back a souvenir. 

My first thought was to go for broke: a sample of the Japanese art of fake food, the kind you see displayed in the windows of Japanese restaurants to demonstrate which dishes they sell. For years I've longed for a plastic bowl of ramen, the kind that comes with a pair of ghostly chopsticks floating over the bowl, a few strands of ramen depending delicately from the sticks.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Whimsical gifts: a red-and-white cherry pitter and a red-and-green strawberry huller. Practical gifts: plain wooden spoons and striped tea towels."]

But, as Matthew explained, I might truly go broke collecting these items, since they're about $120 apiece. 

So I downscaled to a tenugui, or traditional Japanese cotton hand towel. They come in pretty patterns, they're durable, and, of course, they're literally handy.

In other words, I tried to be a risk-taker, but chickened out. (What was I gonna do with a 12-inch-high bowl of resin ramen, anyway?)

The same situation came up recently when I realized I needed to buy holiday gifts for my children's preschool teachers. They both like to cook at the school, so I figured some sort of kitcheny tool would be appropriate. 

But then I hit the caution-or-risk wall: Be conservative and get a nice bundle of pretty wooden spoons? Or go wild and get, say, the silver squirrel nutcracker?

Like hand towels, you can never have too many wooden spoons. They're just so useful. 

But then, a nut-cracking squirrel is so cute. And it's actually sort of useful — that is, if you're the kind of person who likes to have a bowl of nuts still in their shells sitting around, waiting to be cracked open after dinner (or by inquisitive preschoolers). 

Plus, while you might forget who gave you your 12th wooden spoon, you probably won't forget who gifted you the chomping metal squirrel. This, of course, is the true desire of all gift-givers: not to give a gift that is appropriately matched to the giftee, but to be remembered by the recipient. (Most givers, alas, forget that this remembrance can be either warmly positive or mockingly negative. Shoppers, beware.)

In the store, the angel of mundanity and the devil of fancy took turns whispering on my shoulders. Basic! Beauty! Boring! Bizarre! Eventually I gave up and went home, without purchasing a single thing.

I know that, deep down, I am very much on the side of the quotidian (the plain ordinary object that gets used every day) instead of the quirky (the elaborately designed item that gets used perhaps once a year). I try to fudge this boundary by buying, say, pretty-yet-practical potholders. Sure, it's a dull mechanism. But look, it's designed so well! It fits my hand just right! And it's such a lovely color!

I don't buy myself objects that aren't going to be used regularly. But every so often, someone gives me an item that I would never buy for myself, thinking it too flippant, too niche, too ridiculous — and then I find myself using it. A lemon squeezer, for example, or a strawberry huller, or a cherry pitter. 

Of course, I don't use these things very often. But when strawberries or cherries are in season, you'd better believe the huller and the pitter get dug out from the back of the drawer.

There's a place for both kinds of presents in everyone's kitchen. You can always use more wooden spoons and pretty tea towels. And you never know when that shiny squirrel might get pressed into service.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

reference-image, l