As the holiday social scene begins to heat up, guests all over town start asking themselves the same question: “Where did I put all of those fancy wine bottle bags?”
There’s nothing wrong with bringing a bottle of wine for your host or hostess, of course, but it’s not exactly the most original gift. With just a little more effort, you can bring a present that’s sure to be remembered long after the party is over (and maybe increase your chances of being invited to more soirees in the future).
A great tactic is to stock up on one item that can be individualized to suit many occasions. For example, big-box retailers usually have a well-priced selection of crystal cookie jars or canisters on their shelves around the holidays. Scoop up a few, and then kick them up a notch by filling the jars with elegant treats.
Suggestions include delicious biscotti from a local bakery, scented soaps or sachets or a selection of holiday cookie cutters for the host or hostess who likes to bake.
Everybody gets pushed for time in December, so do your hosts a favor and bring them a sturdy rattan basket filled with all the little things they will need to wrap a quick gift: tape, pretty ribbons, decorative picks (Hanukkah, Christmas and winter themes), small gift bags, gift tags, a pair of scissors, stickers, and pens or markers in gold and silver. Include a few sheets of wrapping and tissue paper; if everything is color-coordinated to mix and match, so much the better.
To avoid last-minute panicky trips to the store, keep hostess gifts on your mind when you do your regular shopping. For example, toss a few nonperishable gourmet treats into the basket each time you grocery shop, such as flavored coffees, pickled green beans or okra, sun-dried tomatoes in jars or packets, olive oils infused with spices and imported pasta in a variety of shapes.
Then, when the need arises, grab something from your stash, add something fresh, and you’re ready to go. A loaf Italian bread goes well with the olive oils, for example, or give the pasta along with a wedge of Parmesan cheese. Complement the green beans or okra with a bottle of Bloody Mary mix, or pair the coffees with cookies you pick up on your way to the party.
Even if you aren’t exactly Martha Stewart, you can whip up a few gifts at home for a considerable savings. Buy a selection of herb plants at your favorite greenhouse, plant them in little pots, and present your hosts with a trio of herbs to make their own miniature cutting gardens. When you make the spaghetti sauce your friends rave about, freeze small containers for gifting.
For the times you’re visiting the host and hostess who have everything, consider the other family members. Do your hosts dote on their cats or dogs? Bring an assortment of gourmet pet treats or a pair of monogrammed food and water dishes. Young children in the house? Kids love “surprise bags” with stickers, markers, bubbles, clay, storybooks and wash-off tattoos.
One of the easiest gifts to wrap is a cookbook; even people who don’t do a lot of cooking like to read through them, especially when they cover a cuisine as delicious as New Orleans’. A gift certificate to one of our great restaurants makes this present even better, and for your friends with children, a promise to baby-sit makes it the best.
Don’t overlook the humble poinsettia. Andy Warhol once called them the “cliché of potted plants,” and it’s true: They are ubiquitous around the holidays. But almost everybody loves them, they come in a variety of colors, and you really can’t have too many as they look great when they’re massed. And even people who don’t decorate for Christmas usually like the holiday touch they bring to the house.
Finally, remember that your mother was right when she said it was always in good taste to thank your hosts again the day after the party. For a small, informal gathering, a thank you phone call (or even e-mail) is fine. For larger events, spare your hostess a phone call (she’s probably recovering) and take a few minutes to write a note, mentioning the food, music, decorations or great mix of guests. Keep an assortment of thank you cards around so your note looks just as pretty as the gift you gave.