Robin Sloan
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November 2021

Robin’s 2021 gift guide

A proper annual gift guide offers all-new items, trea­sures never before seen or considered! I can’t bring myself to pub­lish such a thing, because my favorites are still my favorites. Long­time sub­scribers will find many repeats below, but there are new offer­ings, too. Browse ruthlessly.

As you know, I think con­sum­able gifts are the best gifts, so I’ll start with those, then segue into some more durable goods.

A jar of seaweed salt, green flakes mixed with white grains

In last year’s gift guide, I included Day­break Sea­weed Co.’s wakame flakes, and I have to confess: it was a bit perfunctory. I love the company, and I wanted to include one of their prod­ucts.

This year, my rec­om­men­da­tion of their Sea­weed Salt is deeply UNperfunctory. I have been using this stuff for six months, mostly sprin­kling it on my morn­ing toast (the top layer, above peanut but­ter and olive oil) and, when I am with­out it, plain salt — even the fancy stuff, big pil­lowy flakes — tastes drab, insufficient. The seaweed’s umami really trans­forms the whole situation.

I mean, is it pos­si­ble? Has Day­break cre­ated a prod­uct “strictly better” than SALT?

A glamour shot of Enzo's chocolate almond butter, looking lascivious

Enzo’s Table is a recur­ring favorite, not least for their Fresno chili olive oil, which is no mere infusion. Rather, it’s made by toss­ing whole chilis into the hop­per with the olives, so they are crushed together. In the mill, the air becomes mildly weaponized. What emerges, bright shim­mer­ing red, is (and I will go to the mat for this): the world’s best condiment.

Eating soup? Add a stripe of Fresno chili olive oil. Beans? Stripe of Fresno chili olive oil. Eggs? Stripe. Pizza? STRIPE.

Enzo’s biscotti is like­wise the best I’ve ever had. I do not say that lightly; I am a mid-level biscotti connoisseur. The nice thing about bis­cotti as a gift is that you can enjoy it together, immediately. “Oh wow, thanks, this looks tasty!” “Yeah, open it up. Come on!”

Finally, the new arrival: Enzo’s chocolate almond butter is pow­er­ful alchemy. Their reg­u­lar almond but­ter was already my favorite; the addi­tion of Gui­t­tard choco­late spins it into another, more dangerous dimension.

Two tins of Fat Gold olive oil side by side, one with a bright yellow sticker, the other royal blue. They look nice together!

When I’m not writ­ing nov­els or gift guides, I help make Fat Gold. We work with a net­work of grow­ers and mills to pro­duce Cal­i­for­nia extra vir­gin olive oil in small batches, négociant-style. Olive oil can be as var­ied and inter­est­ing as wine, beer, or choco­late; Fat Gold is an invi­ta­tion to dive in.

Right now, in addi­tion to our stan­dard offer­ings, we have some spe­cial single-vari­ety oils, all dressed up in sparkly hol­i­day attire. These were milled from the olives called picholine and fran­toio and mission. Any one of them would make a tasty and prac­ti­cal gift; make it two (or three?!) and you’ve got an olive oil tast­ing on your hands.

We offer our annual subscriptions, too. That’s four shipments, December-March-June-September, each a dif­fer­ent olive oil, each with a zine that explains what it is, where it came from, and how to use it.

I’m writ­ing this gift guide in Fresno, fin­ish­ing up this year’s olive harvest. After spend­ing the day at the mill, Kathryn is now watch­ing Star Trek: Voyager. I am miss­ing an episode from sea­son 6 to pro­vide these rec­om­men­da­tions!

A collection of INNA Jam jars, looking like jewels

INNA Jam is oper­ated by my great friends Dafna Kory and Jesse Solomon Clark (he of The Cot­ton Modules). It is a cool and slightly weird thing when your pals matter-of-factly make the best jam in the country. Their fac­tory faces the park; I pass it every day when I walk to the post office.

There’s a lot to enjoy at INNA Jam, but I want to reserve a spe­cial word for their Meyer lemon mar­malade. In Sourdough, my char­ac­ter Horace Porta­cio explained the ori­gin of this vari­ety in the U.S.:

These are Meyer lemons, named for Frank Nicholas Meyer. Dutch by birth, but an agent of the United States government. He worked for the Depart­ment of Agriculture’s Office of Seed and Plant Intro­duc­tion before the First World War. [ … ]

He sent these across the Pacific, and the Span­ish sent toma­toes to Italy in the six­teenth century, and the Portuguese, chilis to India. And maybe a comet brought it all to Earth — who knows? I quite agree with Jaina Mitra:

Nothing is nat­ural.

I think about Frank Meyer a lot, and the fact that these lemons were smug­gled across an ocean, spread through­out a country, all to be har­vested and deliv­ered to a lit­tle build­ing in Emeryville, where they are cooked into marmalade. It makes your head spin — and not only because the mar­malade is so good.

Piment d'Ville, rusty red powder in a squat little jar

Boonville Barn Col­lec­tive grows and dries a wide range of chiles up in Men­do­cino County, and their Piment d’Ville chile powder is a sta­ple of our kitchen. The Piment d’Ville avail­able on their web­site now is made from chiles har­vested ear­lier this month; I imag­ine its crim­son par­ti­cles still vibrat­ing with sunlight.

Here’s the deeper rec­om­men­da­tion: go drop your email address in the noti­fi­ca­tion fields for each of their whole dried chiles. Espelette, ancho, cascabel, mulato, and yahualica: they are gorgeous, gem-like, a world apart from the next best thing in the gro­cery store. Last year, I bought two packs of each, made chili Colorado for months.

The whole dried chiles will come online in January. Bet­ter add your email now, because you’ll be rac­ing me to get them.

A tiny jar of Serota's Underarm Balm, fishbelly white

I have talked about Serota’s Under­arm Balm a lot over the years, but/and, I keep talk­ing about it, because this is one of those prod­ucts that feels like it has its peo­ple out there … and THEY MUST KNOW ABOUT IT.

I guess you might call that “evangelical”.

Serota’s is a nat­ural deodor­ant applied in dabs so tiny they couldn’t pos­si­ble do any­thing; could only be offer­ings to some god of perspiration. And yet … your whole under­arm chem­istry changes. I can’t explain it. I can only report that I was pre­vi­ously “a sweaty per­son”, and I am now “not”.

While it might feel strange to give deodor­ant as a gift, for the right person — and I would have been this per­son — it will be one of the two or three best gifts they’ve ever received.

The Knot Dress from Miranda Bennett Studio, vaguely classical, dyed vivid rose

Miranda Ben­nett Studio makes inventive, ver­sa­tile cloth­ing for women, all of it col­ored with nat­ural dyes. Kathryn has their Knot Dress and she wears it a half-dozen different ways; the fact that these dresses are so singular, so lovely, and sold in ONE SIZE (adjustable to sizes 0-12) makes them uniquely inter­est­ing, and plausible, as gifts. Note that there are a ton of vari­a­tions in the shop — the same pat­tern in different fabrics, dif­fer­ent colors, etc. Note also the care instructions!!

This is one of those com­pa­nies you really want to root for, and one of those dresses that (very apparently) you always want to wear.

A bunch of pieces of the board game Ravine, all sorts of appealing little tokens and cards.

The insta-clas­sic board game Pan­demic sort of ruined me, because now I only want to play games that are coop­er­a­tive rather than competitive. About a year ago, prowl­ing the aisles at the iconic Games of Berkeley, I scooped up a bunch of new contenders; they were mostly duds, but the winner was SUCH a win­ner that the duds were forgiven.

That win­ner was Ravine.

The premise is sim­ple but/and urgent: a plane crashes on an unin­hab­ited island, and only 3-6 pas­sen­gers emerge from the wreckage. You work together to sur­vive until rescued: shar­ing food and resources, decid­ing every day who will ven­ture out into the wild and who will stay behind at camp. Meanwhile, hunger gnaws … animals lurk … madness beckons … 

The game mixes the dire and the goofy in a unique and appeal­ing way. I have to confess: I don’t like silly games; I never have, not even as a child. I’ve always wanted there to be some sense of like, no, we BELIEVE this — it’s real. Even if it’s just a loop on a Parcheesi board. Ravine, with the sparest strokes, invites you to believe … and then also, unexpectedly, to sing, and dance, and gen­er­ally be weird.

Each playthrough is short, thirty minutes at the most, so the impulse is usually: let’s do one more! My board game group had more fun play­ing Ravine than any other game in 2021. I have been instructed, in stern terms, not to pur­chase the expan­sion pack, because it has been ear­marked as a gift in the month to come.

The SOMA Labs Ether Anti-Radio, a neat black device about the size of an original iPod

SOMA Laboratory, based in Rus­sia and Poland, man­u­fac­tures strange, expen­sive music synthesizers. (Its motto: ROMAN­TIC ENGINEERING.) One of its prod­ucts is rel­a­tively affordable, and that’s the one I have: the Ether Anti-Radio, a hand­held scan­ner that plugs into head­phones and allows you to probe the elec­tro­mag­netic emis­sions of the world around you.

It makes for a strange odyssey, walk­ing around the neigh­bor­hood wav­ing the Ether Anti-Radio before you. Most parked cars are silent, but some emit a steady tick-tick-tick, phon­ing an unknown home. Util­ity poles crackle and whine. Key­pads on gates bur­ble like R2D2, even with­out touching them.

The Ether is not just an anti-radio but also an anti-phone, because rather than curl you around its screen — it has no screen — this device pushes you out into the world. It’s thrilling and a lit­tle bit addict­ing to dis­cover the rhythms and melodies (and creaks and wails) that have, apparently, always been waiting there. (I should add: they are wait­ing in your kitchen, too.)

As a gift, this would be an absolute curveball. Can you imag­ine receiv­ing it? A slim black box, its func­tion opaque. “What IS this thing?” But then, its recip­i­ent takes it for a walk … and the world begins to sing … 

A pack of fancy matches, every part of them black

Kathryn bought a few packs of these Hibi Deep matches and they have become an essen­tial tool in our home. For any­one who attends to the atmosphere and aroma of their space, these will be a huge win­ner. (Okay, yes, we use them in our bathroom!!)

In fact, you can’t go wrong with any­thing at Jinen—a Japanophile empo­rium, one lovely object after another. Among so many other things, Jinen stocks the clas­sic Dictionary of Color Combinations. I got mine elsewhere, years ago, and, believe it or not, I have not only perused it but USED it, for Fat Gold and other work. It’s a strange book, feels like some­thing from another time, another universe; truly NOTH­ING but lovely color combinations, pre­sented page after page.

Perfect for any­one who cares about design, or other universes.

A writing sample from the Pilot Parallel pens, jagged and elegant

Earlier this year, I ordered sev­eral Pilot Par­al­lel pens, intend­ing to exper­i­ment with black­let­ter script. Well, I dis­covered two things:

  1. Left-handed writ­ers can­not pro­duce the tra­di­tional black­let­ter forms comfortably!? It has to do with the posi­tion of the nib, the physics of it, almost. You have to either (a) write upside down, or (b) learn to write with your other hand. Unbelievable!

  2. Even denied black­let­ter, these pens offer the high­est pleasure-to-dollar ratio of any­thing I’ve pur­chased in recent memory.

A clutch of Pilot Par­al­lel pens would make a fun, ran­dom gift for any­one who enjoys writ­ing and/or drawing. Each one comes with a tiny cal­lig­ra­phy guide to get you started. Bet­ter for righties, though 😤

The cover of Writing Systems of the World, a sort of clip-art-y collection of images evoking writing and language.

Writing Sys­tems of the World aims to be a brisk tour of the ways humans write, devot­ing each of its roughly 100-ish pages to one of the world’s major scripts. To this, Akira Nakan­ishi adds gal­leries of writing sam­ples for more obscure or ancient writ­ing systems. The sheer amount of “human-ness” on dis­play in these pages is dizzying.

I stum­bled across this one doing research about dif­fer­ent kinds of script — not unre­lated to the pens above. It’s hon­estly a super weird artifact, which means it could, for the right per­son, make a pre­cise and pow­er­ful gift.

The book was ori­ginally pub­lished in 1980, and it has a ter­rific pre-digital feel, the pages very pal­pa­bly “pasted up”. I found it educational, and far more than that, mesmerizing — almost unspeak­ably beautiful. But, of course, I love typography, cal­lig­ra­phy, the shapes of letters. If you know some­one who might say the same, this is a book they (I can almost guarantee) would NEVER dis­cover on their own, but will be glad (very glad) to encounter.

Weird pick, I know, but this was prob­a­bly my favorite book I found this year.

A copy of LaserWriter II, with its black and white cover evocative of a pixelated printer test page.

I’ve praised LaserWriter II extensively, and I promise I’m not just try­ing to bludgeon you into submission. (It’s a very com­pact book … not enough mass for blud­geoning.) What I want to say is, if you know some­one who used and/or loved Mac­in­tosh com­put­ers in the 1980s or 1990s — maybe a per­son involved, somehow, in that era of desk­top pub­lishing? — this novel will be a treat for them to read, and maybe even more so, for them to unwrap. Laser­Writer II wears its affec­tions plainly; one glimpse of the cover, designed by Tamara Shopsin herself, and the early Mac user will melt.

Just in CASE you missed it ear­lier, here’s my blurb:

“Early 1990s Mac computing” sounds niche, and maybe it is, but what a niche: packed full of inter­est­ing peo­ple who stum­bled together across the bridge between the ana­log and the digital. If that holds any res­o­nance for you at all, you will love, love, LOVE Tamara Shopsin’s new novel. Beau­ti­fully writ­ten and nerdily pre­cise, Laser­Writer II reveals the things we didn’t know then; it enlivened my own memories, gave them new con­text and richness. This is a really spe­cial book.

The cover of The Rainbow Goblins, showing... well, they're goblins, and they're trying to capture a rainbow. It's a whole story.

If you know a child, per­haps 5-8 years old, then I highly rec­om­mend for them The Rain­bow Gob­lins, which I grew up reading. A chthonic fairy tale, it is beau­ti­fully illustrated, almost hyperreal, and gently … but implacably … disturbing.

Isn’t this what a children’s book is sup­posed to do? Plant a lit­tle bomb with a very slow fuse that will go off unpre­dictably at some point in the future?

Best of all, it’s avail­able from 50 Watts Books, the new empo­rium where, even if The Rain­bow Gob­lins doesn’t fit the bill, you will will surely find some­thing extremely gift-able. Go wan­der through—it is a house of wonders.

That con­cludes this year’s gift guide! Repetitive, maybe, but what are we gonna do? The good things stay good; that’s part of what makes them good in the first place.

Back in the old days, you’d just get every­body an orange, every year another orange, and they’d be delighted. Hmm … 

Thanks, as always, for following along.

From Fresno!


November 2021