Festive baskets are a staple of holiday giving. The ones you buy from sites on the Internet are beautifully decorated and look to be filled with a virtual treasure-trove of goodies. But pictures can be deceiving, and sometimes the actual contents of these baskets bear little resemblance to what the photographs promise. Pretty boxes with pictures of fine chocolates on the outside may contain more air than candy. Packages of crackers or cheese hold barely a bite. While it's not true for many vendors, if you've ever had the experience of receiving a basket that looked wonderful only to find that what's inside is a disappointment, then you know what we're talking about. There are a few ways to avoid that.
When you're shopping via your computer, be careful to buy from companies you're familiar with or can research. You can read comments on sites like Yelp to get an idea of the satisfaction level. Some companies have pages on Facebook and you can check the comments. Or use companies from which you've received gifts and have been happy with the products.
One way to insure that baskets fulfill their promise is to create them yourself. If you're planning to deliver the gift in person, it's easy. Stores like Michaels, Pier 1 Imports, and Cost Plus World Market are just a few that sell baskets, ribbons, and all sorts of wrappings. You'd be surprised what you can find in 99-cents Only stores. And for the contents, there's no limit to the selection of goodies at these stores, specialty shops, Trader Joe's, or even your local supermarket. You can create baskets around a theme (chocolates, wine, puzzles, bath products, sports) or just put in a mixture of items you know will be enjoyed. You don't have to be limited to food. Theater or concert tickets, pretty hand towels, golf balls... anything can be part of a gift basket you make yourself. If you're not feeling creative, there are “wrapping stores” that will put it all together for you.
If you're not planning to see your recipient in person during the holidays, there's another way to get around giving something sight unseen. Some “brick and mortar” stores will let you select the contents item by item and will package them into a basket for shipping. That makes the gift more personal and gives you the security of knowing that your money purchased something of quality and not just pretty trappings.
Wonderful gift baskets can come in all sizes, from the tiniest – the right size for a piece of jewelry or the keys to a new car – to the largest which may be filled with enough treats to last until Spring. Shopping for gifts can be hectic but it can also be great fun. However you do it, the person who is lucky enough to receive your gift will see that you cared – and that's the heart of any gift.
Everybody has to eat – even characters in books. If you were writing a novel, one thing you'd want to do is create characters that are fleshed out with details that make them real. Among those details might be their tastes in food. A few examples:
In Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ishmael and Queequeg enjoy clam chowder in Nantucket. “It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.”
Washington Irving's hero Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow had an appetite for both pancakes and one of the local young ladies. “...soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered and garnished with honey and treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.”
And Gerty, in James Joyce's Ulysses, knew that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Here again, pancakes seem to be one of the most reliable routes. “... for Gerty was womanly wise and knew that a mere man liked that feeling of hominess. Her griddlecakes done to a golden brown hue and Queen Ann's pudding of delightful creaminess had won golden opinions from all … dredge in the fine self-raising flour and always stir in the same directions, then cream the milk and sugar and whisk well the whites of eggs...”
In current mystery thrillers, cooking may play a role. Take Patricia Cornwell's series featuring Coroner Kay Scarpetta, in which Kay's skills in the kitchen rival those she displays in the laboratory. Cornwell's books contain so many recipes that she collected them all in a cookbook entitled Food to Die For: Secrets from Kay Scarpetta's Kitchen.
The novel Heartburn by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally) tells a fictionalized version of Nora's real-life divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein (All the President's Men). The heroine is an author of cookbooks and this novel is peppered with her favorite recipes. There's an index at the back of the book listing all the recipes and the page numbers where you'll find them.
Food has been a prominent theme in movies as well. There's Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), a combination travelogue, food-fest, and murder mystery. Or Julie & Julia (2009), in which a food blogger named Julie tries to prepare every one of the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Even British Spy James Bond told us how to make his martini – shaken, not stirred.
Eating is a universal activity, for real people and also for characters that seem like real people in the stories that skilled authors weave for us. When the preparation and enjoyment of a meal is described so well that you can almost taste it yourself – that's our kind of book!
Thanksgiving is coming. We all have an image of the typical American Thanksgiving celebration. But there's more than one way to make it happen, so consider these options as you plan.
Traditional Home-Cooked Meal: Here's the Norman Rockwell version – family members and friends come together. The house smells wonderful and people wander in and out of the kitchen either helping the cook or stealing a nibble of something before dinner. We sit down to a table arrayed with all the traditional dishes, hear Uncle Ralph's stories for the 15th year in a row, then waddle into the living room after dinner and fall asleep in front of the TV. There's something made with pumpkin, there's football, and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is in re-runs. Even if guests bring side dishes and dessert, the host usually provides the turkey and does most of the work. And someone has to clean up. But it's all worth it.
Have it Catered: You can order a complete Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings from any of the major supermarkets or a local restaurant. You may have to heat up the dishes, but you'll cut way back on the work and leave more time for socializing with your guests. You'll still have to wash the dishes afterwards but at least you'll have the energy to do it.
Eat Out: Many restaurants offer Thanksgiving feasts that will rival anything you can prepare in your own kitchen. You may choose family-style with a whole turkey and sides, individual plates that include turkey breast slices plus all the trimmings, or something else entirely for those who don't like turkey. You may prefer a buffet where you can fill up on your favorites and not be concerned about leaving enough stuffing for the next guy – they'll put out more. Plus, at a buffet, more than two people can have a drumstick.
Wherever you look, it seems that Thanksgiving is about food – and certainly, food is a very important part of the holiday. But let us not forget the the 'thanks' part of Thanksgiving. That's personal. In your heart you know where your gratitude lies – and that's always something to celebrate.
Happy Thanksgiving to each of you.
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