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