Here it is, our fourth annual edition! The first three were just practice for this masterpiece of culinary and imbibable magnificence. Because this year, our food and drink gift guide isn’t just the usual excellent selection — products we’ve used, received and enjoyed, and/or gifted — it’s also chock-full of pithy commentary on important topics like the politics of tiki drinks and the retail miracle of TJ Maxx.
Like last year, the previous year, and the year before that, there’s no ulterior motive. (Well, there is one affiliate link this time, which is Amanda’s, but since she just had a baby and now has an extra daycare cost, that’s basically the same as zero.) Our goal is simply to feature products we love from brands we want to support and recommend. Plus, a few hundred people (including our own friends and family) have told us they now rely on it not just for the holiday season, but all year round when seeking gift giving advice.
- A distribution of gift options between $20-$300, with very few at the top end of that range, and plenty of affordable selections
- A diverse range of products that can accommodate every palate and dietary restriction
- No mass market stuff
- A focus on small businesses and diverse ownership (companies founded by women, PoC, and other under-represented groups all made our list)
- US & Canada focused, with every option shipping to the continental US
- Unlike 2 of the 3 branches of the United States’ government, bribes are strictly prohibited
As always, you won’t see repeat recommendations from our past gift guide editions. We stand by those past recommendations. We just want to give you fresh, new guidance.
In this 2023 edition, five of us have compiled gift recommendations. Here’s a little more about each of us so that you get a better sense of what informs our perspectives:
Rand Fishkin: Cofounder and CEO at SparkToro, married to a James Beard award winning food writer. Infamous for selecting one terrible restaurant in Lecce, and only slightly less infamous for suggesting a taste test of every Mountain Dew flavor. Rand’s also a ludicrously picky eater, surprisingly passable home chef, and mostly wants all his friends to buy the people they love good, consumable things that won’t clutter up their homes.
Amanda Natividad: VP of Marketing for SparkToro, former test kitchen cook at the Los Angeles Times, Le Cordon Bleu graduate, and someone who puts an inordinate amount of thought into everything she buys. She’s also price-conscious and tries to find a balance between gifting interesting delicious gifts that support small and/or local businesses and staying within budget.
Andrew Bohrer: A mensch of a man whose food and drink opinions have never steered Rand wrong. He’s a cocktail-competition-winner, bartending legend, artist, connoisseur of all things tasteable and taste-worthy. He helped Rand put together SparkToro’s inaugural list. Andrew not only brings an expert point of view, but he’s also consumed, used or visited all of his recommendations, which means he’s giving tried-and-true, thoughtful advice. He is tending bar again at The Doctor’s Office (https://www.tdosea.com/) on Cap Hill in Seattle— a 12 seat, global spirits tasting room with classic cocktails and NO SHAKERS (because old bartenders). Read The Stranger’s review, or just take a Seattle friend there for an extraordinary night of mixology.
Scott Heimendinger: A new co-author of this gift guide! He’s a culinary inventor and good friend of ours. In fact, that sous vide cooker tucked away lovingly in your kitchen? He invented that. Yes. He is a literal inventor. Scott is always testing things in his kitchen, and we’ve never second-guessed his advice. He’s also much better at food puns than we could ever hope to be.
Geraldine DeRuiter: Author of All Over the Place and the upcoming If You Can’t Take the Heat, founder of Everywhereist.com, and popular creator of clear pumpkin pies and crime-denial commentary. She’s also married to Rand, but even if she weren’t, we’d be soliciting her input.
Because we wanted to cover foodie gifts for all kinds of situations and people, we’ve broken things down into seven delightfully eclectic categories:
- Books for all kinds of food enthusiasts
- Servingware and tools for the home chef
- Treats for snack and dessert enthusiasts
- Pantry essentials for the gourmand
- Nonalcholic beverages for everyone
- Boozy treats and tools
- Miscellaneous thoughtful foodie gifts (a.k.a. the inside scoop from us!)
And now, without further ado, the list! (in our own, respective words):
Books for all kinds of food enthusiasts
If You Can’t Take the Heat by Geraldine DeRuiter
James Beard-award-winning writer, Geraldine DeRuiter, has written several of the most virally-shared, laugh-out-loud hilarious pieces of food writing in the last decade. This book, centered on the intersection of food, feminism, and (mostly) righteous fury explores personal and cultural topics with Geraldine’s trademark humor. “If You Can’t Take the Heat” comes out in March, but a pre-order is the gift that keeps on giving… twice anyway.
I pre-ordered my copy weeks ago and am devastated to learn I must wait until March to read this.
It’s technically a bribe if this is on the list. But leave it up.
Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails by Camper English
It’s the book Camper was born to write, except for the other book that he wrote, which is also the book he was born to write, but I haven’t read that book, the one about Ice. Camper English is the founder of cocktailsafe.org, when people were putting all kinds of stupid things like tobacco and cocktails, he brought up science and food safety, and probably saved a few people trips to the emergency room. This book compiles a history of the ways in which we thought alcohol might help medicinally, the few ways in which that it might, and all of the culture that has been built around that science or lack thereof. It’s a great read, and if you want to be an insufferable cocktail party guest, it’s a must read.
Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat
Alright, smartie pants, I know you know how to cook. This book isn’t for you. It’s for your friend who swears they can’t cook no matter how hard they try. Or for the relative who always bungles the recipe you thought was straightforward. Look, learning to cook is hard. If you have an often-frustrated, culinarily-well-intentioned loved one, they’d be better off spending their time building a strong knowledge base for cooking rather than sifting through blog after blog. “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is that book. Once they read this, they can go back to their blog surfing and it’ll all finally make sense.
We own this. We watched the show. It’s great. If you buy just one book this year, make it mine. This can be the other one if you’re buying two or three.
Servingware and tools for the home chef
Kiriko kitchen and dining ware
I love everything from this PDX Japanese store, but their kitchen and diningware is particularly delightful. Beautiful ceramics, stunning bottle openers, vintage placemats and napkins, and some lovely mugs (oddly, these are in the Home & Office category, so make sure to surf around the site).
The Boardsmith cutting boards
When we moved homes, we desperately needed to donate the seven crappy, swag-gift cutting boards we’d acquired since college and get a real one. These fine woodworkers make real ones that last, look beautiful, don’t wobble, and make chopping a pleasure rather than a chore. Our large one came in especially handy for the Thanksgiving turkey and similar piece de resistance-centric meals. (Refer to last year’s gift guide for our cutting board cream recommendation to maintain the board!)
Hestan pots and pans
I love their pots. Right size. Right weight. Right shape. Cadillac. Yeah, Hestan’s a time bomb.
Good luck getting Rancid’s 1995 punk rock chorus out of your head. Thankfully, Hestan’s cookware is much easier to scrub. Also, despite the name, they’re made in Italy (Bergamo and Bologna, two cities I love). Apparently they started in California, but found that Americans just weren’t precise enough for the techniques needed to make great pots and pans. Go figure.
Medieval 2-piece eating set by Tod Cutler
I’ve been enjoying Todd Cutler‘s videos on YouTube for years. He does a lot of different things that are very entertaining, he chases some history in recreating museum pieces with classic medieval methods, tests, weird old weapons, and makes high-grade props for TV and film. Part of his history study of course put him on eating knives and eating daggers from the middle ages. He has dozens of different styles available on both of his websites. I don’t have one, so I can’t vouch for the value, but, I can’t imagine it’s anything but perfect.
Thanks Andrew. Now I know what to get you for Hannukah.
It has 8 temperature sensors along its length so it understands not just core temperature, but the way heat is moving into your food. That enables great predictive features and more detailed data than anything else out there. I use mine for BBQ, but if you don’t have a home combi oven (tsk, tsk) it can guide you to roast chicken nearly as good as mine in a normal oven 😉
FryAway cooking oil solidifier
What to do with that leftover frying oil? Definitely don’t pour it down the drain or the fatberg will murder you in your sleep. Instead, sprinkle in a little FryAway and wait. As the oil cools, it solidifies into a flexible puck that you can toss in the trash.
Kidstir kid-safe knife
Every time my kid has seen me preparing food and declared, “I wanna help!” I’ve tried to find something for him to do. But you can only delegate fruit and veggie-washing so many times before your child decides they need a promotion. Enter: this kid-safe knife. Always with my supervision, my kindergartner will slice fruit or chop nuts with his special green knife. (And then at Target’s $1 section, I found a mini whisk and spatula that’s also his special gear so he can help me bake as well!)
MiiR camp cup
Hot take: those plug-in hot plates for coffee cups don’t work. They don’t keep your coffee meaningfully hot enough, and worse, they just pose a mild burning hazard for klutzy folks like me. That’s why I’m obsessed with my MiiR camp cup. It keeps your hot drinks hot for a solid 90 minutes. Perfect for a slow-poke monster like me who needs her coffee to nearly scald her mouth with every sip and who takes about one hour to savor it.
Treats for snack and dessert enthusiasts
Marchesi panettone cake
I’ve tried a lot of panettone over the years. Here in the Northwest of the US, TJ Maxx was long our go-to-outlet for the preserved Italian cakes (with their half-off prices and deep-cut-Americana shopping experiences), but with TJ’s, you’ve gotta visit 10 times to find 1 good product. Like a casino, the shop/gamble experience keeps you coming back for more.
But, this isn’t about TJ Maxx, “where shopping is fun and fun is the Maxx.” This is about what to do if you want reliable, exceptional quality, beautifully packaged Italian pastries that cost more and are worth every penny. In that case, I’m recommending Marchesi. Their stores in Milan are to die for, but the shipped pastries, thanks to panettone-like preservation techniques, are no less phenomenal. Spoil your recipients. Save the TJ Maxx trip for yourself.
I thought panettone cake was meant to be dry and stale. That maybe, like a Spanish churro to hot chocolate, you’re supposed to dunk it in some drink like coffee. But it turns out the mainstream grocery store panettone that people gifted me for years was just a disgusting version. Rand gifted me this cake in 2021 and I’ve never forgotten it. It single-handedly convinced me that I like panettone after all.
Bokksu Japanese snack box
Lots of folks rave about these Japanese snack boxes. Deservedly so. The goodies inside are perfect for a night of curling up on the couch and watching the only good romantic comedy of the last decade (yes, I’m talking about “The Long Shot,” where Seth Rogen is somehow a believable love interest for Charlize Theron). It’s the kind of gift that’ll make anyone, Japanophile or no, smile, crunch, munch, and ask “whoa… what’s that?” (in a good way).
Snacks from Pampa Direct
There are dozens of potential snack gifts from this extensive purveyor of South American (and some Spanish) goodies, but in particular, I’m recommending the alfajores. There are a few dozen options, so folks in the know can pick their faves. If you’re not sure where to start, I like Havanna and Cachafaz.
I write to you now from Amish country. I am sleeping in my van, across the street there is a tiny market that has a hitching post for horses. The austerity is severe. My wife bought a sampler of this popcorn for my father and I last year. We tasted all of the different heirloom kernels, and they do have different flavors, subtle, likely only noticeable by people that don’t have smartphones, but we enjoyed our time together. Popcorn is still great. I do not need to sell this anymore.
Andrew got this for me. I ate it while binging Derry Girls last weekend. Five stars.
I’m allergic to popcorn, but I assume country is better than city?
Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate 3-bar gift set
I feel like people aren’t usually willing to splurge on great chocolate just for themselves. So, eager gift giver, here’s your chance! This gift set offers a taste of single-origin chocolate from three different countries, wrapped in stunning packaging.
Can confirm excellence of this maker. Packaging is dope, too. You don’t put ropes under your chocolate bars in product photography unless you’re real, real classy.
Pantry essentials for the gourmand
Gustiamo Italian food products
If this store carries it, it’s good. The finest brands of risotto, pasta, jarred olives, high quality fruits and nuts, cakes, you name it. Assemble a box of $75-$200 worth of goodies and you’ll have a princely gift worthy of even the most finicky friend or family member.
Hatch Green Chile Store products
Whole or chopped. Mild, medium, or hot. Frozen, powdered, or in salsa. Accept no substitutions. Read this guide and enjoy. Honestly, Hatch chiles are one of the United States’ best contributions to the spice world. Geraldine puts the powdered stuff on everything, and the fresh+frozen chilies make the best dang green chile enchiladas outside New Mexico itself.
Treats from La Española Meats
I ordered Amanda a bunch of Spanish and Portuguese specialty items from here, because I really like their stuff, especially the tuna and anchovies. They also carry Torres’ to-die-for potato chips (in flavors like truffle, foie gras, and caviar), acorn-fed jamon, and Casals’ Vermouth Rojo, which is just divine over ice with a slice of orange. Did she like it? Let’s find out.
Rand: Amanda – what did you think?
Rand: Amanda? Where are you?
Rand: I think she’s probably busy working on the rest of the guide. And probably noshing on delicious tinned fish.
One bleary-eyed morning I found an enormous box of goodies at my doorstep. I was about 4 weeks postpartum and in the thick of sleepless, colicky nights with my newborn. So this box of Torres chips, Marcona almonds, serrano ham, anchovy filets and olive oil, were the perfect indulgent treat for my foodie heart. This box did not last long. Everything was gone in a week… and I don’t think I bothered sharing it with my family. I don’t know because that week was a blur.
Noel Spanish Jamon Serrano with stand and knife.
Check your local Costco, and you can nab this ham for $99-109. It’s not as bougie as its Iberico cousin, but for about a hundred bucks, you get a porkload of cured ham and a countertop stand. It makes a statement, serves a crowd, and is fun to carve.
La Mancha Saffron by Peregrino
I’m often frugal, and sometimes I am downright cheap. I don’t have a big budget for specialty food items, so when I do spend a little extra, I try to make sure it’s only on food products that I deeply love and/or I know will go a long way. And when it comes to cooking with saffron, you’ll know that a little really does go a long way. In fact, in a batch of paella to serve 4, you’ll probably only need 2 strands of precious saffron — which is precisely why you should splurge on this ingredient!
Noughty Non-Alcoholic Sparkling Chardonnay
I’m pretty snotty about Champagne. I prefer a Miller High Life to most non-champagne, sparkling wines. That said, I think I prefer this nonalcoholic sparkling wine to most non-champagne, sparkling wines, and it is also better than Miller High Life. Furthermore, I think that if you want to be a good host, it’s about time that you have stuff like this floating around in your fridge. Nonalcoholic options are essential for the modern host.
I never thought I’d read “better than Miller High Life” in our gift guide. But I’m oddly glad I did. Also, I’ve tried this at Andrew’s place and it’s actually great. Accept no Martinelli’s, people.
Harney & Sons Dragon Pearl Jasmine Tea
I drink tea every night. I don’t really think much of it, it’s kind of how I wind down. But in the afternoon I will occasionally indulge myself in the greatest luxury that is dragon pearl tea. This may not be the best one I’ve ever had, you should definitely visit your local tea shop, they would love to see your face. However, this is truly one of the most ethereal aromas that a human can enjoy and it comes in a pretty tin good for gifting.
Espresso Vivace coffee beans
They’re the GOAT, and David Schomer is responsible for myriad innovations in coffee. You can purchase one-off bean orders, which will ship within a day or two of roasting. Or, if you’re espresso-obsessed, you can schedule a recurring subscription, ensuring you’ve got the best beans at peak freshness on a consistent basis.
EarlyBird Morning Cocktail
Alright. Our first-ever affiliate link. We’re excusing this one because I just had a baby which means 1) I could use the extra $6 and 2) I legitimately need this drink, which means I truly stand by this recommendation. The outcome sounds too good to be true: a refreshing, hydrating drink that isn’t too sweet that also wakes you up without leaving you jittery. It does this with ingredients like caffeine, L-theanine, L-tyrosine, Ashwagandha, electrolytes, and a proprietary antioxidant blend that includes turmeric powder and tart cherry extract.
Perfect for sleepyheads who need a little help jumpstarting their days.
Be sure to use code AMANDA10 so you get 10% off.
Boozy treats and tools
Lost Temple Traders mugs
I came across these guys because I’m into I guess what we used to call Tiki drinks. I think one of the fun things about exotic cocktails is the way that we’re changing how we talk about them. Exoticism may have been fun at the time, but it doesn’t really stand up to modern scrutiny. These guys do a lot of interesting mugs for exotic cocktails, and I think that I really liked the way in which the conquistador skull flipped the script on what is an acceptable drinking vessel. If you don’t want to get political, or you want to save a buck, they have loads of options.
Tepache Sazon Pineapple
Ever since I fell in love with Tepache, people tell me how often they have made one and that it went bad or exploded. No need to take the risk anymore! You can buy this classic Mexican fermented, pineapple, sugar, and cinnamon flavored beverage here in America now. Don’t make a bomb, buy it in a store.
I have a mild pineapple allergy… there is a non-zero chance that I will order this. Wish me luck.
Gran Mitla Sal de Gusano (agave worm salt)
Everybody is drinking mezcal now. When I say “now” what I mean is five years ago. Why not try some sal de gusano? For some reason enjoying ground up fried spicy caterpillars hasn’t really caught on yet. But it should. They are delightful. They are a delicacy. I don’t want to tell you what I see for the future, but I think that starting to get used to eating bugs is probably a good thing. If you don’t believe me, fine, but at least try this the next time you raise a copitas to your face.
Copitas made by small businesses on Etsy
Speaking of copitas, proper glassware makes all the difference in the world. Maybe there’s a specific style that is the best, I don’t know, but what I do know is having a set makes me happy, and having a set means that I will share with friends and that makes me happy. Here are a few options off of Etsy. Something I learned during the pandemic is that you can set a Geofence around where you would like to do your Etsy purchase. If your preference is to buy from someone close to you, you can set that as a preference and buy local.
It might just be a can of vermouth, apertivo and soda, but it tastes the way that Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck look in Roman Holiday and I can’t think of a better endorsement than that. Well, I guess it also fits in your pocket when you go to the movie theater. I definitely do that too. All three flavors are great.
I am going to order this as soon as I publish this guide.
+100. I need to restock my fridge with these. They’re great.
Acid phosphate from Art of the Drink
I’ve been working in a bar that doesn’t shake drinks. That means we don’t have juice. That means I don’t have a crutch to just make somebody a sour, easy, drinking “margarita style thing.” I’ve been using a lot of acid phosphate. A couple of dashes mimics the acidity of about a half ounce of lime juice. It can be used in the kitchen as well and I reach for it all the time. Plus, each order comes with a free PDF of the book Fix the Pumps. It’s a great history on making sodas at home.
I’m not going to ask questions. I’m just going to buy.
Created by a former Canlis sommelier, they offer a wine club and an a la carte bottle shop. Offerings are broad and span basically all price points. As a wine idiot, I wouldn’t know how to select interesting bottles from the background radiation. Now I don’t have to. Everything I’ve tried from them has been a hit.
Sigh. You guys are killing my wallet.
La Tienda sangria pitcher
I’m linking to the category page because there are lots of options worth perusing. But my personal faves are the hand-painted sangria pitchers. Sure, you don’t need to serve sangria in a vessel like this. But it’s more fun if you do. The oval top with pinched spout makes it easy to pour while also holding in the fruit slices. Plus, when you’re not hosting, the pitcher doubles as a colorful flower vase.
An inside scoop: miscellaneous thoughtful foodie gifts
For this section, I posed the question to our esteemed panel of gift givers: What’s your go-to food-related gift for somebody when you don’t really know what they like, and you want to share something that’s meaningful to you?
Wine or Butter
I like to gift a bottle of Boudreaux Cellars. They’re the only off-grid, self-powered winery in Washington State, and they happen to be neighbors of ours. So, there’s a personal story for us to tell to accompany the bottle. While that probably is not helpful for a wider audience, that’s one winery to consider visiting the next time you’re in Washington.
Another gift option I like is fancy-ass butter. Everyone loves great butter [except those who can’t eat dairy] and not enough people treat themselves to the pleasure of inviting special butter into their lives. We typically grab one of these via DeLaurenti. Accompanying baguette optional.
I’m not going to write myself into that story, but I remember when Miles first started Scrappy’s Bitters, I’ve watched the company grow, and I’m really impressed by the team that is there now. They deserve the success they have, and they’re in no way done with the level of success they will achieve.
The other reason I go with them is that price-wise, bitters are really expensive. Folks don’t think about it because they come in a small bottle, but by the ounce, they cost as much as an 18-year-old bottle of scotch. That’s not really the kind of pricing where most people just take a chance on something they don’t fully understand, and that’s OK, I’ll do it for them.
One of my go-to gifts is kolaches. They’re kid-friendly and I have a connection with them through my mom’s southern roots. While I can get these locally here in Portland from a Texas transplant, there are a number of places in TX that ship them. Try Kolache Factory or Weikels. I also bring a bunch back on the plane with me every time I visit Austin so people burn me down with envy while I eat them on the flight.
I like buying people fancy-ass salt. Unnecessarily fancy salt is just the best, and it’s never THAT expensive. Jacobsen salt is my favorite — it’s from the Oregon coast. When Rand and I got hitched we were too broke to go on a honeymoon, so we just drove up the coast, stopping to visit people who couldn’t make it to the wedding because they’d decided to just have babies (AHEM, MATT, COUGH COUGH COUGH). So, yeah. It’s deeply personal and also impersonal enough to make it a gift for anyone.
Not Spaghetti, SpaghetTONI (or Teacups)
My favorite go-to gift is Benedetto Cavalieri Spaghettoni which I put on the list two years ago, so maybe that’s a disqualifier. I’ve bought it for so many people who get hooked and can now no longer enjoy the crappy store brands or DeCecco/Barilla stuff.
I also love these Japanese style teacups. The feel is just perfect, the little characters are delightful, and learning a bit of Japanese while you sip is an added benefit. There’s several variations from the various Ghibli films.
A treat that your town is known for, shipped to a friend in another state
No one link here. This will vary by your location. When you’re sending a gift to a friend in a faraway city or in another state, it’s sometimes nice to think of how you can send them a piece of your hometown. And sometimes, it’s even better if that gift recipient is from your hometown. Case in point: Sprinkles Cupcakes. I’m born and based in Los Angeles, home to the famed Beverly Hills cupcake. Recently, I sent a dozen red velvet cupcakes to a cousin on the east coast who was thrilled to wake up to the sweet treats. Another food product that’s local to my town and the local Filipino American community are ensaymadas from the Ensaymada Project. These little cheese and butter-covered brioche buns are extra good with coffee, and they’re one of my go-to gifts. Plus, the founder is a dear family friend so I’m extra happy to support her business. (I sent some to Rand and Casey once. Did they like them? I have no idea.) So ask yourself: what’s something your town is known for that you can share with a friend?
Boobie Bars for lactating parents
This one serves double duty: it’s an unexpected holiday gift, and it’s a nice year-round gift for new parents. For people who choose to breast/chestfeed their child, producing enough milk is a constant source of anxiety. Add to that that nursing parents need to consume an extra 500 calories per day to support their health, and you’ve got an important snack opportunity. And if that isn’t enough to worry about, lactation food products and supplements are somewhat expensive — not so expensive that they’re prohibitive, but pricey enough that it’ll make someone think twice before buying for themselves. This, to me, makes the perfect gift! It’s practical, consumable, and is a loving act of service for someone you care about.
And there you have it. Our most comprehensive guide yet. Buy consciously and generously, amici. And have a happy holiday season!
-Your friends at SparkToro, and your friends of SparkToro friends