No holiday gift is easier to choose than food. You don't have to worry about size or color or durability. A food gift can be personal or formal, expensive or a pittance. Give your friends a present of food and it doesn't matter whether they already have one, or if you gave them the same thing last year. And it is of absolutely no concern whether it is something they can use -- everybody needs it.
It is useful to know, however, whether the recipient likes fruitcake or is allergic to chocolate. While almost any food gift will do for almost any person, the best is that which is tailored to specific tastes. Here, then, are a baker's dozen alternatives, gifts for and about food, some long-lasting and some perishable, and some for every kind of person -- and every kind of giver.
People who comb the woods for fungus are clearly a special breed, and for them there is a catalogue that may be the strangest ever found under a rock. "Morels deserve the best" is all the title it gets, and it is purported to be written by Malfred Ferndock, though investigative reporters hanging around his postal box (Box 86, Dennison, Minn. 55018) have spotted an uncanny resemblance to a Minnesota potter with a far more pedestrian name.
In any case, the rustic little 16-page catalogue is aimed at morel lovers, particularly those morel lovers who want a catalogue that talks back to them: "You can probably pick all the morels you'll ever find with an ice cream bucket and a paring knife . . . and they'll taste just as good as if they'd been cut with a $50 knife. (If this is your opinion, you're not going to enjoy this catalog much.)"
Malfred Ferndock's morel knife, however, is only $21.50, though with a morel-decorated leather sheath it's $36.50. There are morel bags for hunting in Minnesota and others for use in Michigan, and spatulas for stirring your morels in the frying pan -- with a morel-carved handle, of course. There are stoneware cups with a morel in the bottom ($8.50, right-handed or left-handed), plus patches, pins, notepaper, posters, calendars, T-shirts and even a morel cribbage board. Prices don't include shipping, and no credit cards are accepted; minimum order is $10, no phone calls are possible. But no wonder: If you ordered without first seeing the catalogue you would never know how to make the Ferndock family's quesadillas con hongos. Nor would you have learned Ferndock's rule of thumb: "Any article about morels written by a professional journalist will contain at least one inaccuracy."
The largest pearls of black caviar: old hat. The freshest of force-fed duck livers: not news. But the world's priciest -- and arguably the world's best -- loaf of bread? That's a gift to remember long after the last crunch. You can order a 4 1/2-pound loaf of Paris' famed Poilane bread, made with all the traditional panoply including ancient wood-fired brick ovens, from a Midwestern mail order company called Deborah's Country French Bread (500 N. Orleans, Chicago, Ill. 60610, 312 321-6023). The catch is that this frozen loaf of dense and crusty country bread costs $29.50 for guaranteed two-day delivery from Deborah's. But it does come in a gift box.
For a real cook, some of the homiest foods are the most appreciated. And if that real cook is Southern, even more particularly from Louisiana, the homiest and most nostalgic of them all might be Camellia red beans, the only ones to use for authentic Red Beans and Rice. You can order them by the 24-pound case from Bayou Buffet (P.O. Box 791127, New Orleans, La. 70179-1127, 504 522-1064), for about $18 plus shipping. And while you're at it, try some Konriko wild pecan rice, which actually smells and tastes uncannily like pecans; it costs $1.39 for seven ounces, $4.40 for two pounds or $15.01 for a dozen seven-ounce boxes, plus shipping. And finally, Bayou Buffet ships a wonderfully whimsical New Orleans souvenir, the Cooking with Jazz poster by Leo Meiersdorff, for $8.50.
Or you can order the pecan rice directly from Konriko, 301 Ann St., New Iberia, La. 70560, (800) 551-3245, for $7.75 (two pounds), $16.50 (12 seven-ounce boxes) or $19.75 (10-pound bag) postpaid.
Smoked trout in itself is not so rare, but smoked trout gift certificates for fish to be shipped on demand are uncommon, particularly when the trout are so uncommonly good as those smoked by Ducktrap River Fish Farm, RFD 2, Box 378, Lincolnville, Maine 04849, (207) 763-3960. The trout sell for $35 a dozen or $24 a half dozen postpaid, or you can order an excellent side of smoked western salmon for $43.50, Scotch-style for $49.50.
What do you do with leftover potatoes? You tell time with them, at least you can if you have a Two Potato Clock, a clever little digital tabletop timekeeper that uses an acid medium -- two potatoes, two oranges, two houseplants or whatever -- as batteries. You'll find it in the science-toy section of Toys-R-Us, Sears or Montgomery Ward for about $13.50. And according to the distributor, the potato "batteries" will keep it going "until you can't stand the smell of the rotting potatoes."
Next time you're picking up an extra bottle of Lafite you can pick up a surprise for a homesick Texas friend as well. The Calvert Woodley Liquors shop, 4339 Connecticut Ave. NW, is selling barbecue imported from Texas, already sliced thinly and sopping up a fairly hot and faintly sweet sauce of considerable zing. It comes in beef or pork versions, though we can't imagine a true Texan considering pork as barbecue; and there are beef and pork ribs as well. Considering the trek it has made to come East, this is barbecue of character.
Hardly anybody collects beer cans any more, and coins can be a costly hobby. But you might turn a friend -- preferably a close one so that you'll be around for the consequences -- into a chocolate collector. Madame Chocolate's catalogue lists nine top-quality bittersweet chocolates for cooks, from Callebaut to Nestle "Peter" Gibralter to Lindt Courante Special. There are the same number of semisweet or milk chocolates, twice as many kinds of chips and four different kinds of white chocolates, all fine ones. To pack up with such gifts there are double boilers, spatulas, scrapers, thermometers and a chocolate chipper to break up large blocks. To order or to get a catalogue, write 1940-C Lehigh Ave., Glenview, Ill. 60025 or call (312) 729-3330.
Overcome gourmand-gift guilt by sending a gift basket from The Healthy Gourmet, Inc., 65 Boone Square, Hillsborough, N.C. 27278, (919) 732-4332. From a Breakfast Box of Irish oatmeal, orange blossom honey, maple syrup, coffee, preserves, pancake and muffin mix ($24.50 plus shipping, available in low-salt version) to an Italian Holiday of arborio rice, virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salad dressing, pasta, large garlic cloves, spices, spaghetti sauce, espresso and amaretto cookies ($34.95 plus shipping, available in low-salt and low-sugar versions), the company has put together snacks and sweets and staples and condiments in combinations that are tailored to special dietary needs but no less fun than naughtier selections.
Last-minute shopping can be an advantage when it allows you to choose perishable surprises such as a whole melting brie wrapped in brioche and decorated with dough fancies. It is from The Store, 2313 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 333-4951, the new retail outlet of that whimsically named caterer, the American Amber Grain, Fruited Plain & Shining Sea Company. An eight-ounce brie serves 10 and costs $10; a 2.2-pound one serves 35 and costs $29.50. Or make up one of The Store's brightly colored gift boxes with perishables or non, using the incrusted brie as the centerpiece.
Family portraits have been upstaged. This year it's a portrait not of Grandpa or the children in unaccustomed comradely poses, but a portrait of the house itself, a three-dimensional one in gingerbread. The Vista International Hotel pastry chef accepts such commissions -- with a couple weeks' notice, of course, and prices vary as they do with any real estate. Or if your housing needs are not so pretentious you can make your own little A-frame gingerbread house from a kit the Vista sells -- cutout cookies, frosting, chocolate tree and paper cone for piping -- for $25, which includes a class in the art of gingerbread on December 8 at 10:30 a.m. The class will also include the chef's own pastry tricks and refreshments. For orders and reservations call 429-1700, ext. 107 or 108.
Surely you can learn a lot by sitting at a sushi bar and watching the chef for an hour over a pile of teppa-maki. But if you want to learn sushi making from start to finish -- from filleting the fish to rolling the seaweed -- you'll need more. And that more can be in the form of a video cassette put out by Homespun Video, Box 694, Woodstock, N.Y. 12498, (914) 246-2550, at a cost of $53.45 including postage. It is indeed a homespun videotape, with chef Shige Hara occasionally stumbling and searching for the right word in English. But there is a lot to learn, from the preparing and forming of the sushi rice to the carving of cucumber garnishes, and just watching his knife technique is worthy of "Masterpiece Theatre." This is an extravagant gift for a casual sushi lover, but valuable for lending around the neighborhood and cheaper than an adult education course.
Along with a sushi tape, a source of fresh fish would be welcome; and just in time, Boston's Legal Seafood has made it easy to have fresh fish and seafood -- by mail, ordered through a toll-free number, (800) 343-5804, paid for by a credit card and shipped by overnight carrier. You can send a lobster dinner for four -- $59-$76 for the lobsters or $97 with clams and chowder added plus placemats, bibs and nutcrackers. You can even get lobsters precooked and sealed in a cooking pouch for an extra $1 each. Fresh fish ranges from $4.50 to $13 a pound plus shipping, and you can get extras from live oysters, mussels or clams to smoked bluefish or salmon pa te'. The company promises to process orders within 24 hours (at additional cost), thus seeks the last-minute holiday business, though it prefers a week's notice.
A wreath doesn't often fit in the category of gift or of food, but ribboned Victorian herbal wreaths are lovely enough not only to give but also to display throughout the year. And some of the most lush wreaths we have seen are locally made by a company called Appalachian Sprigs and sold in Arlington and McLean at the Apple Pie shops (4524 Lee Hwy., Arlington, and 1382 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean). They sell for $38 and come in three varieties: full floral, Victorian and decorated moss. Which to choose? Impossible task. All three, of course.