Your Essential Holiday Gift Guide, 2019

Or an essential gift guide for any time of year, really.

Here is a brief list of things that I think you could give people that they would be very happy to receive. Only some of these things were published or produced in 2019. Why restrict yourself to strict novelty when what you want to do is buy people things they will like? The list includes things to listen to (children’s music); things to read (cookbooks and more); things to cook with (knives and pans); and things to drink (whisky mostly) . Some of these things are made by friends of mine (and are marked accordingly). The things that are linked to Amazon will make me a small commission if you purchase them there. I feel dirty about this as I am not a fan of Amazon’s business practices, but I also have no other way of trying to generate a little bit of money to support the web-hosting costs of this blog. Nonetheless, I have not linked the  recommended books available from American publishers to Amazon—if you have an independent bookstore in your town, I am sure they would be happy to order it for you. Or you can click on the links below and get them shipped to you from our town’s excellent bookstore, Content Books, who ship cheaply all over the United States and to Canada, and apparently also to Hungary.


Perhaps you too have little children or are little children-adjacent. Perhaps you too suffer from the music made for little children. Well, suffer the little children’s music no more. Louis and Dan and the Invisible Band are a Southern Minnestoa duo that makes excellent, catchy and clever music that parents can love almost as much as their children do (especially if the parents like jangly, guitar-driven indie rock). Their first, eponymous album was released this past February and includes such instant classics as “Underwear Spaghetti“, “Rodents” and the diptych, “Yupster Food Song” and “Hot Dog” (with guest vocalist, Ken Pierce). Their second album comes out today. Itincludes more zoology (“Jabiru“) and sees them expanding their musical repertoire to White Dad Rap (“Cheese Digest“). You can buy the albums individually or together for the special price of $20. I recommend you take a listen and make the purchase. Don’t hold the fact they’re friends of mine (well, we live in the same zip code anyway) against them. This is catchy music that will make the entire family smile. Listen to and buy the albums here.

Four Books by Southern Minnesota Writers

These books are all by people I know and who live in the same Southern Minnesota town we live in. Published in 2019 is my my friend Ben Percy’s excellent collection of short stories, Suicide Woods (buy it here from Content). Ben is a multi-genre threat (he’s currently writing comics for Marvel) and these stories show his mastery of horror. Mary Dunnewold’s Fine, Thanks: Stories from the Cancerland Jungle is a sharp, funny, entirely unsentimental memoir of her collision with breast cancer (buy it here from Content). Kaethe Schwehn’s The Rending and the Nest came out in 2018 but there’s no reason to not buy it in 2019 or 2020 or 2021 for that matter. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale set after a mysterious event (the Rending) and its settings naturally include Mall of America (buy it here from Content). And speaking of things released not in 2019, my friend Bonnie Nadzam’s first novel, Lamb was published in 2011. It’s a disquieting novel about desire, narrative and control. An essential read at any time, it’s taken on greater resonance in the #MeToo era (buy it here from Content).

You can buy them all from Content by clicking on the links above—and I believe you can specify if you’d like signed copies. Oh yes, they also offer free gift wrapping. And no, I don’t make any money from any of this.

Two Indian Cookbooks

Usha’s Pickle Digest
. As far as I am concerned, the major publishing event of the year—in any genre—was the reappearance of Usha Prabakaran’s legendary, self-published labour of love, the magnum opus on Indian pickles, Usha’s Pickle Digest. Until now if you weren’t one of the lucky few to own a copy of the original print run all you could hope for was generous friends who were. But earlier this year it became available on Amazon India as a very affordable e-book. It showed up on Amazon in the US as well where it turned out to be a print on demand edition. It’s not clear who is producing this but, having purchased one and compared it to the original edition, I can tell you it is the real deal. The book itself is not the last word on Indian pickles (what could possibly be?); most importantly, it leaves out all the wonderful non-veg pickles made across the country, but it is still a book that anyone interested in Indian food should purchase. Do it now.

Speaking of self-published magnum opuses, Ammini Ramachandran’s Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts was published in 2007. I’ve known Ammini online for a long time now from the early days of food forums. In a better world her book would have been a major publication from a big publishing house and it would have won many awards. But the publishers Ammini approached were not willing to publish the mix of recipes, cultural history and memoir that she had in mind and she decided to stick to her guns and write the book she wanted to write. And a good thing too. It is a very specific book: focusing on the vegetarian cuisine of Kerala brahmins. It has no photographs or other glossy material. What it has is a writer who knows her subject inside-out and recipes that work. In the current market for Indian cookbooks in the US, dominated by folly and noise, Ammini’s book is a relief. It should be recognized as a classic. Buy it and see for yourself.

One Non-Indian Cookbook

My pal Steve Sando is the king of beans. In all the time I’ve known him he’s also been an indefatigable evangelist for Mexican food—and not in a self-serving _insert famous chef’s name here_ kind of way. His passion is for everyday Mexican food, the classic repertoire as elaborated in humble kitchens rather than high-end restaurants. His newest book presents this passion in the very specific context of pozole. The book features a number of variations on this delicious theme. I would suggest buying the book, a few bags of Rancho Gordo posole and having at it. Buy the book here.


Things to Cook With

Perhaps you are ready to spend more than $30 on a knife. Or perhaps you know someone who would appreciate receiving their first good knife. It has to be Japanese, of course, but unless you’re very rich or a chef there is no reason to spend fuck you money on knives. For us home cooks, whether proficient or merely enthusiastic, I’d suggest that the following is a good all-purpose combination that will not break the bank, which is not to say they’re cheap: 1) Shun’s Classic 7-inch Santoku. This may well be the only knife you need. Sharp, perfectly balanced, attractive. And if you don’t want to do the whole Japanese sharpening stone thing you can even send it to their Oregon operation for free sharpening. This is what I use 80% of the time. 2) Most of the rest of the time I use this Suisin Inox Steel Petty Knife. Perfect for filleting fish, peeling and mincing ginger or garlic etc. etc. Get a good honing steel and don’t take them to the local hardware store for sharpening.

I purchased this carbon steel saute pan on a whim earlier this year. I was looking for a carbon steel pan that might approximate an Indian karhai and also be a plausible pan for occasional deep-frying, and hit upon this Mauviel 8″ pan. It’s a heavy bastard and a bit ungainly but it’s got a brutish charm and it’s great for making Indian vegetable dishes that require a lot of sauteing; it’s also my go-to pan for upma. Though I have not yet put it to that use, I’d imagine it would also be great for polenta. Between the high walls and the high surface to food ratio this is an excellent pan. The only way it could be better would be if it had a lid. But you can improvise, as I do, with the lids of other similar-sized pans (though none will fit snugly). As with all carbon steel pans it will need to be seasoned and you can’t then cook acidic foods in it.

Things to Drink

The world of single malt Scotch whisky is a little more fucked each year but there are still a few good values to be found. I’m not going to bother here with anything very esoteric, just a few recommendations of whiskies that can be found relatively easily in any good liquor store: 1) For someone who might like smoky whisky, Lagavulin 16: still a classic; 2) For someone who might like a milder, fruitier whisky, Loch Lomond 12; 3) For someone who might like something in between, Springbank 10. If your friends are inclined toward Irish give them a bottle of the Redbreast 15. If they’re inclined towards bourbon, a bottle of the regular Knob Creek, which is great for sipping or mixing. And speaking of mixed bourbon drinks, earlier this year I had the Scofflaw cocktail for the first time (at In Bloom in St. Paul). I loved it and seeking to recreate it realized you need good grenadine. You could learn to make your own pomegranate syrup for the purpose or you just purchase a bottle of B.G Reynolds Lush Grenadine on Amazon (I couldn’t find it at any local stores). Make sure you select “Lush Grenadine” from the drop-down menu.


Well, that’s it. Maybe next year I’ll recommend some Indian fiction and cinema as well. In the meantime, if you want to give me something don’t bother with the stuff above; just send money, preferably in large bills.


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