"I LIKE PRESENTS that get used up," said one woman anticipating post-holiday clutter. Food, of course, not only gets used up, it is invariably the right color and usually the right size.
Food is the perfect gift -- for the person who has everything as well as for the person who has nothing. And while one might not be able to afford the best when it comes to cars, clothes or jewels, almost anybody can afford the very best apple or a jar of the most exquisite jam in the world.
To stuff a stocking, you of course start at the toe. But an orange is so predictable. Try, instead, a papaya; they have been very good this year. Or if you know your recipient's taste well enough, stuff a fresh baby artichoke or two in the bottom, the kind of artichoke that you can eat stem to tip without worrying about the choke; you should find one at the new Something Special store in McLean.
From there, you can go sweet or savory, modest or lavish, local or imported.
Stuff a stocking and yourself with the most exquisite variation of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Instead of peanut butter: La Taste hazelnut spread, imported by New York's Dean and DeLuca from France, and sold here by Suzanne's, 1735 Connecticut Ave., NW ($4.95) and Williams-Sonoma ($6.25 in its catalog).
For the jelly, American Spoon's wild berry jams, light on the sugar and loose on the spoon and intense with summery flavor. They are $7 for 15 ounces at Suzanne's (blueberry and raspberry in stock), $8 at the new Provisions across from the Eastern Market (strawberry and blackberry), and probably as good as a jam will ever get to be.
Provisions has some agreeable little stocking stuffers in its spice collection. A vial of saffron ($2) could start paellas simmering again, and there are foot-long, even 2-foot-long cinnamon sticks (for knee socks) at $1.
Even more down-to-earth are pork sausages. Lakewood Plantation in Columbia, South Carolina (800-845-2112), has nearly a dozen kinds, from British to Chinese. The best of the lot are long, fat nurnberger and baurenwurst, Swedish potato links and cocktail-size Plantation links (both the smoked and the sage-and-pepper unsmoked). The sausages are meaty, spicy and solidly excellent, ranging in price from $5.50 to $7.50 a pound. There are also rather salty hams, and bacons both salty and mild, as well as roasts and whole suckling pigs. If the stocking and budget are larger, Lakewood's Herbal Loin, a 3 1/2-pound boneless pork loin roast fully cooked with a dark green coating of herbs, is spectacularly good, the meat as pale and delicate as milk-fed veal. It comes ready for a brief heating and easy carving at $39, and could singlehandedly wipe out pork's negative image and put it in the league of plume de veau. Lakewood products come frozen via UPS; to make the shipping worthwhile you'll probably need to be filling several stockings.
$1.30 for a single cookie may sound outrageous, but ounce for ounce it is probably a bargain. And besides, it is as dense as fudge and just as chocolatey, an enormous lump of crunch and nuts. The Chocolate Crunch Cookie is available at Food & Co., 1200 New Hampshire Ave., NW.
It may be called Trees, but it is known for its homemade breads, dozens of them. What we liked best, for a stocking or otherwise, was Scottish shortbread made by Faye Wallace. Trees is at 311 Mill St. in Occoquan.
Cross barbecue sauce with tomato sauce and give it an Indian accent, and what you'll have is "My Mother's Chutney," locally made by the Singhaya Corp., in Springfield. It is a little sweet and plenty hot, usable as a glaze, a marinade, a basting sauce or mixed with cream cheese for a dip or spread. A jar costs about $4.50 and is for sale in many local specialty food shops, particularly those in Northern Virginia.
The fruitcake search goes on. Small enough to fit into a stocking and just about good enough to warrant its price is the one-pound loaf cake baked by Daill Hyde Garbini and available in Virginia at La Cuisine, Ayr Hill Country Store, The Old Parsonage and Persnickety, for $8. Plenty of fruit and rum, barely enough cake to hold the shape and a fine classic fruitcake taste make this a high-quality version of the Christmas necessity.
For cooks, include in the stocking a precious little treat: pure fruit essences extracted by steam and imported from France. They can be used to boost the intensity of fresh raspberries, blackberries or whatever. Just a drop goes a long way in improving what nature may have neglected, in desserts as simple as a fruit salad or as complicated as a buttercream torte. The essences come in nearly two dozen flavors, and average $3 for a 1-ounce bottle at La Cuisine in Alexandria.
One could make it through life not knowing of a special fondness for Spanish Rosemary Honey or Tropical Forest Honey from Honduras. But one could find out with A Hive of Honeys, a sampler produced by Culpeper, Ltd. The English company has gathered eight types of honey from around the world and packaged them in 1-ounce plastic cups, then in a sweetly floral box just the right size for a stocking. The price is outrageous when you look beyond the clever idea and packaging to the quantity of honey -- $10.50 at C'est L'Alchimiste in Mazza Gallerie -- but it could launch your own sampler project.
Caviar also makes an interesting sampler, though an even more expensive one. The Iranian -- beluga, sevruga, osetra and pressed -- is available at U.S. Fish in Kensington; for Russian, Bloomingdale's, The French Market and a few other stores have the reliable Petrossian brand, also in enough varieties to form a lush sampler.
Whether to send your greetings or to give someone else the wherewithal to send greetings, the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress has delicious possibilities. They are note cards, fronted with beautifully photographed American culinary curiosities: Tomato Meringue Pie or Uncooked Relish. And on the reverse sides are the recipes for those historic treats. Buy one to send and one to keep in your own file. Sold singly, they are 75 cents; packages of six are $4.25. The cards, along with other American crafts, are sold at the information counter in the basement level of the Thomas Jefferson Building's west wing, 10 First St. SE. It is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.