Every year, along about the time the azaleas bloom, people start doing things that require commemoration by way of gifts. Sometimes they get married, sometimes they have anniversaries, sometimes they graduate, sometimes they declare "days" -- mother's, father's, etc. -- and sometimes they have babies, although this last actually goes on all year round.
Weddings and babies often have showers attached to them, requiring gifts that might go in the category of little but exquisite. Gifts for "days" are all over the lot, as are anniversary presents, the criteria for both being how much money there is to spend, family tradition and, perhaps, how many little misdeeds over the course of the year now need to be compensated. Weddings seem to require something that's useful but very beautiful.
We'll assume that recipients are really interested in good cooking.
It's tempting, when pacing the stores, to cave in to the idea of sets of things, particularly the ubiquitous and seductive stainless steel cookware to which brides and grooms have historically been subjected. Don't do it. Stainless steel pots are okay for boiling spaghetti, but frying pans should be made out of something else -- aluminum, for example, or copper. The stainless will never wear out, which only adds to its diabolical nature, and a stainless frying pan will almost surely warp and develop hot spots.
So that's the first present you can give: to restrain yourself from buying a set of stainless steel.
If what you're after is beautiful and useful, however, take a look at the highly designed, sleek kitchenware made by the Italian firm Alessi and designed by some of the most accomplished designers working -- Richard Sapper, Michael Graves, architect Robert Venturi. An elegant stainless steel teakettle by Michael Graves sings a bird-like little song -- there is a bird on the end of the spout to reinforce the message -- and it works as a teakettle as well. Espresso makers -- two different designs -- might be nice for those with nostalgia for things Italian.
Folks at the American Hand in Georgetown, the Washington store with the biggest selection of Alessi pieces, also think highly of the little parmesan cheese cellar, a round, flat container nicely proportioned and useful as well.
All this good design does not come for free. The espresso makers range from $60 to over $100, the teakettle is $80, the parmesan holder, in black or stainless, is $45.
It's pleasant to try to give people things they might want but be reluctant to buy for themselves, but these things should be more than the sort of gold-toothpicks- on-a-tangle-bit-of-wire "hors d'oeuvres holder" one friend of mine received.
If you have lots of money, think instead of the magnificent, 14-litre, hotel-weight copper stockpot, a low-slung affair that would look beautiful on the serving table as well. This is something for a treasured loved one or two -- it costs upwards of $300 at La Cuisine in Alexandria. Copper is the ideal cooking material, and this pot could produce lovely stews, chili and other kinds of long-cooking dishes, then go elegantly to the table. And its top can double as a saute' pan -- so actually it's a bargain.
A slightly more manageably priced gift is the Donvier ice cream maker, a little device now available at all kitchenware stores. The Donvier has gotten lots of publicity, and for good reason. It uses no electricity, ice or salt, and you only have to crank it a few times -- half a dozen, say. It's relatively cheap as well, selling for about $40 for the quart size. (There's a smaller size, too, but the quart is the most practical.)
Sets of stainless cookware might be a waste of money, but there are some sets -- mainly the kind that you'll have to put together -- that make lovely sense. Go to a good kitchenware store and put together a set of whisks, for example. One might be a 14-inch balloon whisk, one a smaller metal one for stirring sauces -- say, 8 inches -- and one perhaps made of wood for whisking in containers like tin-lined copper whose surface is relatively delicate. Throw in, if you can find it, a tiny version for mixing up one-person portions of salad dressing.
You could also put together a set of tart rings in different shapes, along with the heaviest-weight aluminum baking sheet you can find (the tart rings are laid on the baking sheet). A few round sizes would be nice, along with a rectangular one for fruit tarts, perhaps a heart-shaped version and a flower-shaped version. These are widely available at good kitchenware shops.
A baker might also like a series of baking plaques in romantic shapes -- the madeleine pan is one example of this. These molds come as well in wider shell shapes, elongated cats' tongue shapes, twists, scallops and flower-like shapes. They are decorative as well as useful and mostly are made of tinned steel. Look at China Closet, The Daily Grind, Kitchen Bazaar, Williams-Sonoma or La Cuisine for these.
Also in a romantic vein would be a set of individual coeur a la cre me molds, the perforated white ceramic molds in which that creamy dessert is made. While it's traditionally served around Valentine's Day, coeurs a la cre me go wonderfully with berries, making it a summer dessert as well. You could also buy one larger version, to serve six or eight. These are widely available.
It's not romantic but it's become a cult favorite; the Felknor Theatre popcorn popper is a huge hit. Operating on a crank system that keeps the kernels at the bottom constantly agitated, the popper uses no oil and -- I once spent the better part of a day testing this -- leaves fewer unpopped kernels and pops the corn to greater volume than any other method. About $20 at most kitchenware stores.
Finally, the nicest baby gift I can think of -- aside from a block of IBM stock, of course -- is the little mechanical food masher called the Happy Baby Food Grinder. You put the food in one end, push the plunger and end up with fresh food (whose provenance and contents you can absolutely vouch for) mashed or ground so that the tooth-poor can eat it. It's compact enough to take to restaurants and of course it works at home in the kitchen too. Look at health food stores for this.