Mrs. Claus Delivers

Food Gifts for the Holidays

by Virginia B. Wood

For reasons I'm loathe to explain at the moment, I'm feeling a lot like Mrs. Santa Claus today. In that capacity, I've got some excellent gift suggestions for the food lover on your Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa list. There really is something for everybody this year: cookbooks and videos, magazines and newsletters, cooking classes and mail order foods. Any or all of these things are sure to make an epicurean, delighted.

Food to Read

My current favorite food magazine is elegantly written and beautifully photographed Saveur, the American version of a popular French magazine of the same name. The magazine invites the reader to "savor a World of Authentic Cuisine" and does precisely that. Picture the National Geographic of food and you've got the right idea. There is more good writing and fewer recipes in Saveur than in most of the other glossy food publications, and I wish it came out more often than bi-monthly. Still, it is worth every cent of the $24 subscription price. Saveur, PO Box 5429, Harlan, IA 51593-2929.

The other good gift subscription is to Edward Behr's wonderful food newsletter The Art of Eating. Behr, an erudite Vermonter, writes quarterly about subjects that capture his interest. Receiving the newsletter is like getting an entertaining, long letter from a very knowledgeable friend. The 16-page summer newsletter was about the Apulia region of Italy, and the fall letter is an in-depth study of dark chocolate, including a visit to the French chocolate manufacturer Valrhona at the factory beside the Rhone River and an interview with master chocolatiers Maurice and Jean-Jacques Bernachon. Contact Behr at Box 242, Peacham, Vermont 05862.

Cooking Classes

The cooking classes available in the Austin area are every bit as entertaining and nourishing as an upscale restaurant meal. Though there are not as many good cooking schools as there are good restaurants, there are plenty of choices where students get to learn, socialize, and eat with other food lovers in pleasant settings. Remember that cooking classes make great couple, group, or corporate gifts or outings. Gift certificates to an upcoming class at Central Market (206-1000), Breed & Company Westlake (328-3960), Cooking with Marie-Claire (323-5832), or Blanco River Cooking School (512/847-2583) would make great stocking stuffers.

Mail-Order Food Gifts

The mail-order food business is booming these days. There are plenty of local companies with their own catalogues and/or 800 numbers for mail-orders. A taste of Texas would be a welcome gift anywhere. There are pecans and candies from Berdoll Pecan Farm (303-6157); sauce gift boxes from Timpone's Fresh Foods (800/883-3238); sauces, chilies, cookbooks, and gifts from Don Alfonso Foods (800/456-6100); Thai sauces and condiments from Satay (467-9008); extravagant pies and glistening roasted peppers in heart-shaped bottles from Royer's Round Top Cafe (800/624-7437); vast assortments of award-winning dry roasted nuts from Austinuts (800/404-6887); absolutely delectable candies from venerable local confectioner Lammes Candies (800/252-1885) or prescription designer sweets from Dr. Chocolate (454-0555).

Smart chefs are wise to the mail-order game as well. Order from the signature line of specialty products created by Coyote Cafe creator Mark Miller (800/866-4695); Hudson's on the Bend chefs Jeff Blank's and Jay Moore's popular assortment of sauces and condiments (800/996-7655); or shop with the newest contender in the specialty food market, Star Canyon chef Stephan Pyles, from his new gift basket catalogue featuring everything from a red Bucking Bronco Tie to salsas, soups, and condiments, to Chocolate Chile Truffles (800/201-4629).

For the true carnivores on the gift list, send naturally raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free wild game meats from the Texas Wild Game Co-operative at Broken Arrow Ranch (800/962-4263); if you missed one of the most popular vendors at this year's Christmas Affair, just call Marshall's Bear Creek Smokehouse (800/950-BEAR) for excellent smoked turkeys and hams.

If someone on your list is passionate about fresh produce, organic citrus fruit from the Texas Rio Grande Valley will be a big hit under the Christmas tree. Call immediately to order. Orange Blossom Farms (210/-876-2103); Stanley Jacobsen (210/585-1712); or South-Tex Organics (210/585-1040).

Cookbooks

This fall there are two or three equally deserving cookbooks for each one I'll have the space to review, but I can't let that deter me from the task. As I've said often, one of the best aspects of this job is the opportunity to read and review cookbooks and meet the interesting people who've written them. Very early in the year, I had the good fortune to meet one of my food-writing idols, author and former New York Times restaurant reviewer Mimi Sheraton, when she was in town writing about the owner of Sweetish Hill. I was pleased to receive a copy of Sheraton's newest book The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup -- Recipes and Lore to Comfort Body and Soul (Warner Books,$22.95,hard). The esteemed author enlightens us with her voluminous research about the universal comfort food, and shares enough international recipes and variations that a dedicated soup-maker could go for years without ever making the same soup twice. Each soup appears with some tidbit of cultural information or an explanation of its origin and among the recipes there are anecdotes, cooking tips, and soup-related historical facts and literary quotes. Sheraton's knowledge will amaze you and her chicken soups are bound to comfort.

A few years ago, successful children's book author Angela Shelf Medearis decided she wanted to create a tribute to her Mom and other good African-American cooks and that desire produced her first cookbook, The African-American Kitchen (Dutton, $18.95, hard). Her newest effort is both a useful and educational book, A Kwanzaa Celebration -- Festive Recipes and Homemade Gifts from an African-American Kitchen (Dutton, $17.95, hard). Medearis says that she wrote this new book because she "wanted to contribute to a celebration that was created by and for African-Americans," and her contribution is significant. There is a brief history of the holiday, a thorough explanation of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, and guidelines for the holiday celebrations. The author has compiled 100 festive recipes that are introduced with anecdotes or quotes from famous African-Americans, and there is also a section on Kwanzaa gifts from the kitchen. The perfect companion gift to either of Medearis' cookbooks is her video Kitchen Divas, wherein she and her sister Marcia Shelf provide a very entertaining guide to preparing a five-course African-American feast. To order, call (800/224-9662). It's a treasure.

If you are one of those people who finds that they are open to the message but can't tolerate the strident, self-righteous messenger when it comes to information about vegetarian dining, organic produce, and seasonal eating, California chef John Ash is the man to convert you. From the Field to the Table (Dutton, $29.95, hard) is Ash's new book and it is guaranteed to inspire you to seek out the best in fresh, seasonal organic ingredients to prepare his or your own recipes. My favorite quote from the book is "Farming is the first step in cooking. A great cook is only as good as his or her ingredients." Granted, the author has at his disposal one of the most remarkable organic gardens in the country at the Valley Oaks Food and Wine Education Center at the Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, California that provides him with an incredible bounty in all seasons. However, his recipes can be adapted to whatever is fresh and seasonal where you are cooking. Share this book with someone who loves good food, or just buy one for yourself.

The various related cuisines along the border between the Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. are the subjects of several recent magazine articles and books. One of the best of these is The Border Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, $14.95, paper) by Santa Fe travel and cookbook authors Bill and Cheryl Jamison. The Jamisons' newest work is a thorough compendium of recipes from the Texas Valley to Southern California, on both sides of the border. The reader can follow the subtle ingredient variations as climate differences and available crops change the flavor of what we now call Southwestern cuisine as it progresses across the West. From Mark Miller's long, enthusiastic foreword to the several hundred recipes, this is a worthwhile book for any cook or anthropologist who is interested in the foods of the Americas.

Though it is not a cookbook, the newest fundraising book project from the national hunger relief organization Share Our Strength is a must-have for the young readers on your Christmas list. The Greatest Table (Harcourt Brace, $18.95, hard) is a beautifully produced fold-out book with each of the panels illustrated by one of the nation's most popular children's book illustrators. The text, written by Michael J. Rosen, educates young readers about the greatest table, one where all Americans are welcome and able to eat. It may not be as big a hit on Christmas morning as Disney movie action figures, but it brings a message for the entire year. Proceeds from the book sale will benefit hunger relief. Happy Holidays. n

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