Saturday, 12 December 2009

Gifts of Food

For years I’ve made food gifts for the people in my office. It would generally happen the weekend before the office Christmas party that Mom and I would look through a few cookbooks and choose 3 to 5 cookie recipes. Then we’d do the math for how many dozens I needed, make up a grocery list, shop and start baking. After a while we tended to use tried and true recipes and a gift typically contained 3 or 4 chocolate chip, cut out sugar cookies with icing, apple-oatmeal and chocolate crinkle, and maybe a pecan sandie or two. It was a very long day in her tiny kitchen what with the various stages of cookie dough, mixing, chilling or filling; cooking and decorating; washing cookie sheets for their next batch and then finally wrapping either in foil or in plastic bags covered with paper and then bows and tags. I must have felt it was worthwhile, I did it for so many years, even after Mom was gone.

Years later I discovered spice cake and started making it here at home to use up the bananas and other fruit we weren’t going to finish off before they spoiled. Making several batches of the same thing was much more straightforward, so I moved from cookies to small cakes. Then it was just a challenge to find enough ovenproof dishes of appropriate size and shape, but fortunately we have lots of Pyrex bowls, meatloaf pans and corning ware casseroles; and more recently that amazing rubbery stuff that nothing sticks to.

I’ve only met one person who didn’t like spice cake, at least only one who ever said. In addition to being a bit easier, spice cake, with less sugar and fat and more fruit, is a healthier present to give. Several women have asked me for the recipe, which I am happy to share both in it’s original format and my adjustments. I don’t know about elsewhere, but over here anything homemade is increasingly exotic.

If spending a day baking doesn’t appeal, I have always welcomed other food gifts: canned ham, exotic cheeses, blocks of chocolate, foreign mustard, special kinds of preserves or chutneys are all gifts we have received and enjoyed. These don’t have to be terribly expensive or unusual, but generic labeled items (good quality though they often are) should probably be avoided for this purpose. The traditional presentation for these sorts of things has tended to be in a basket of sorts, but I would think there would be other festive means, such as a decorative open box with the items nested in shredded paper, or wrapped in cloth shopping bags, or in brown paper and twine, or the like. I think food gifts want a slightly different treatment than more ordinary presents.

If you are sending food presents abroad, be careful that the customs people are happy with what you are sending to their country. I once got a rather nasty letter from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs saying they had destroyed a package of beef jerky someone had kindly attempted to send me for Christmas. They implied I had attempted to import the stuff and warned of consequences should I try it again. I thought they had a lot of nerve, this being the current kingdom of mad cow disease, but sadly emailed the sender “Thanks very much for the thought, but best not do that again.”

If posting food internationally, one might also consider the weight and subsequent costs. A paper box of fancy teas might be a better choice than a glass jar of mango chutney, for example. Having foods shipped within the country of origin might be an alternative, say from Harry and David. Though it’s not necessarily any cheaper, the shipping times will be shorter, if that’s a factor. I’ve not attempted shipping any homemade food, as I’ve been concerned about spoilage as much as US Customs.

Still, for locally presented gifts, I think food is a good option, particularly if you have men on your list. You know what they say about the way to a man’s heart…

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