Food: The Universal Gift

Today is my birthday and despite my being removed from childhood or even adolescence by a good many years, people still buy me presents. I'm not big on getting a lot of "stuff", so I have tried to have years where I refuse gifts, I include on party invitations the words, "no presents necessary", I even use ALL CAPS. I also know how hard it is to feel obligated to find someone a gift. I wanted none of that for my friends and relatives. Alas, it seems that our society is stuck on the idea and forever there will be wrapping paper and bows coming my way. The good news, there is an answer. A million dollar, never get stuck at the mall again idea. Food (That's it...the idea is food). Brilliant, yes. Simple, yes. Easy to justify and feel good about. I think so.

So, my saavy reader, you probably already know all of this, but I insist upon rambling on and hey! its my birthday so indulge me a little. This year I again included the caveat on my birthday invitations, "no gifts necessary". I also tacked on this little nugget: "Feel free to bring food and drink." Ahhhhh yes, now you see the subtle passive aggressive Minnesota strategy that can lurk in every request or invitation. Let's be nice, but let's also see how far we can go in using that nice.

What is great though, is that those who really wanted to bring me something, brought food and drink. It was wonderful for both sides. My beloved friends were so excited about their food finds that every time someone came through the door, they pulled me aside with exclamations of excitement and anticipation. There were bottles of Tequila with hand-written bottler's notes, craft beers from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, McElrath chocolates and Dogwood coffee beans, both crafted right here in Minneapolis.

Probably the most exciting gift was the bag from Surdyk's, with mysterious wrappings within. Cheese! Be still my heart, the bag stunk to high heaven of artisan cheese and I just about ran for the corkscrew to unleash the Bordeaux waiting on my counter. It was at this moment that I fully realized the wonder of giving the gift of food and drink. It is one of those simple, good and tasty ideas that works for all involved. The guest had a wonderful time at the cheese shop sampling and learning about new cheeses, while also feeling good about the purchases benefitting a local farm and business. There is very little to no packaging or waste involved here. There is no need worrying about whether I already had the gift...I mean can you ever have too much cheese, wine or chocolate. There is no awkward moment of the shirt that doesn't fit or having to pretend like you absolutely love those throw pillows that someone found at the art fair.

As I thought more about this, I realized all of the wonders here. I have often given friends gifts of beer, food, coffee, etc. Now, however, I understand what a universal idea this is. In the end, it does not matter if the person is a foodie or not. This is an opportunity to share what you love and if it is tasty, you can bet the person on the receiving end will love it to. A great example of this can be seen with my family. Most everyone in my extended family is quite conservative in their eating and none shop at a coop. A farmers market would be a cute and quaint idea if they were on vacation perhaps, but not a substitute for a super market. That never stops me from giving them food that I believe in.

The key is being creative and not trying to stretch the boundaries too much. I would never send someone who eats lots of fast food quinoa or goji berries. They already think I am crazy as it is, why go over the edge into loony. Cinnamon rolls from a local bakery? Always well received. I have also had a lot of luck at the bulk bins at the coop. I can pick out interesting nuts and dried fruits or candies, package them nicely and have a great gift ready to go. Coffee or tea always work, as do cookies. Consider jerky or even a share of meat from a local farmer. Finally, always know that craft beer or sodas are almost always welcome (especially if the recipient is me). 

Take the idea even further if you wish and if the gift is to be a large one, add on something complementary like a mug for coffee or a brewing device. Nice glasses for the wine or beer. A chef's knife with food or a board for the cheese. No matter what you give, the gift of food lasts, something I love. The cheese I receive lasts all week and each time I have some, the gift is given again. Beer glasses given last Christmas remind me of the kind friend who gave them to me every time I fill one. Consider the layers of deep meaning behind these gifts and change your habits. After all, don't we most like to celebrate special occasions over food, a fancy bottle of wine, or a nice restaurant (yet another great gift that supports the locals we love).

There you have it. The solution for any future gift giving dilemmas. No sizes or colors to worry about, just good taste! Here are some ideas locally for finding unique and fun food gifts.

The Golden Fig in Saint Paul. Specializing in local foods and specially blended spices. Be careful in this place, it is foodie heaven.

Surdyk's or France 44 wine and cheese shops, Minneapolis. These two are great for not just cheese and wine, but for those fancy little jars of briney things.

The Wine Thief and Ale Jail, Saint Paul. Cooks of Crocus Hills, Saint Paul and Edina for food, cookbooks and food implements. Annona Gourmet, Saint Anthony for oils and vinegars. United Noodle, Minneapolis, the largest Asian grocery in the midwest!

Please share your favorites...and I suppose you want to know what I might be doing today on my birthday? No, well too bad. I'm thinking of breakfast at Al's and Namaste for dinner with a bottle of Saint Emilion I brought back from France a few years ago thrown in there somewhere with all of the chocolate and cheese I hope to receive. Cheers!

Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at 
Simple, Good and Tasty.  He can be reached at

Thanks to Sara Shaylie for the photos!