Robin’s 2022 gift guide
I sent the first of these guides on a whim in 2020, and the reaction was so positive that I resolved to keep sending them. Here is 2022’s edition.
My first disclaimer, always, is that many recommendations are repeated, year to year, because many things remain wonderful. I feel bad for the compilers of “proper” gift guides, e.g. on gadget websites, who have to go hunting every year for novelty. (Maybe they ought to rebel, and insist, “Last year’s Bluetooth speaker remains PERFECTLY WHOOMPHY!”)
My other disclaimer is that this guide is totally U.S.-centric. Some of these items are available in other countries, but I don’t know which ones exactly, so I’ll request your pardon, again, for my parochialism.
I believe consumable gifts are the best gifts, so the guide is front-loaded with those. They are followed by durable goods and then, of course: BOOKS!
The introductory course
Of course I have to begin with this, or my strategem is for naught. Fat Gold, recall, is the small company that I co-founded with Kathryn Tomajan. We produce California extra virgin olive oil; in fact, I’m writing this newsletter in hours stolen from the olive harvest, still underway.
This year, for the first time, we’re offering a gift set, which combines a tin of our Standard oil (bold and peppery) with a tin of our Blue oil (fragrant and fruity) and a limited-edition 24-page recipe zine, which also includes a concise, compelling introduction to extra virgin olive oil. The zine was printed on a Risograph by a tiny studio here in Oakland; longtime readers will understand how much I love this.
If you know someone who has expressed cautious interest in extra virgin olive oil, this is the gift for them. You can order anytime; the gift sets will all ship on December 15.
The graduate seminar
In Italy, olio nuovo is a traditional offering of the season: olive oil fresh from the mill, bottled while it’s still cloudy with little particles of fruit and micro-droplets of water. This makes for an interesting flavor —
Fat Gold doesn’t produce an olio nuovo, so let me recommend instead the offering from ENZO Olive Oil Company, grown in the California’s San Joaquin Valley and milled just about … a week ago?! Yep, that’s new oil.
Beyond their olive oil, Enzo’s Table is a cornucopia. Their almond butter is the best I’ve ever had; likewise, they bake my favorite biscotti in the world.
The jam band
My friends at INNA Jam make the best jam in the country; one of them is also my bandmate in The Cotton Modules, so, yes, it’s all totally intertwined over here.
Their flexible subscription makes a great ongoing gift. Not only is the jam itself sublimely good, but it’s always packaged beautifully, so the whole experience is very fun and ceremonious. If a subscription is too much, consider a jar or three of their black mission fig jam. Ina Garten is on the record saying it’s her favorite!
I want to spare a word, also, for their line of shrubs, which offer a fun, festive alternative to booze for non-drinkers and/or young revelers. I was visiting a friend’s house recently, where each kid, ages 4-10, merrily prepared their own drink, first selecting a favorite flavor of shrub, then topping it with a float of sparkling water. “Those are some fancy kids,” I said to myself. Yes —
The wild one
Tart Vinegar is a small-batch vinegar producer with the spirit of an independent press and/or a punk band.
As an aesthetic project, it’s bold and arresting, singular and personal. As vinegar: it’s delicious! That’s a rare treat, when vibe matches quality.
My favorite, the Ocean Vinegar, is currently sold out. You should watch for its reappearance; made from kombu, bladderwrack, and Irish sea moss, it’s something really special. In the meantime, you can try vinegars as various as Celery, Lavender, and Sumac.
The salt upgrade
Daybreak Seaweed Company’s seaweed salt is my daily staple.
Nearly every morning, I make toast (Josey Baker’s Whole Grain Wonder Bread) and slather it with peanut butter (crunchy) then splash that with olive oil (Fat Gold) and top the whole production with a generous sprinkle of Daybreak’s seaweed salt.
This provides my fuel for most of the day, and, indeed, most of my work. If you have ever read anything I’ve written and thought, “Well, I enjoyed that,” thank the peanut butter, and the olive oil, and the seaweed salt.
Plain salt, even the fancy flaky kind, is no longer sufficient. If I were a Roman soldier, you’d have to pay me in this.
The chile revolutionaries
The cultivation and presentation of chiles by Boonville Barn Collective has been, for me, a revolution. I am now a true believer; a zealot. I honestly didn’t know chiles could taste this good! Fresh fruitiness and savory depth and a fine, clear heat; the undeniable sense of sunshine captured in physical form.
I’ve mentioned before that I am obsessed with their whole dried chiles, e.g. these cascabels from 2021. (Keep an eye out for the new ancho chiles when they come online … ) I also recommend their poblano chile powder and their smoky Piment d’Ville. Their Calabrian chile flakes are sold out, but those are obviously a must-have when they reappear.
Some amount (dash, pinch, avalanche) of some Boonville Barn Collective product (powder, flake, whole chile) makes its way into nearly everything I cook, and I just don’t know why you’d choose to live any other way. (That’s the zealot talking.)
The magic bag
This is a pricy recommendation; I acknowledge that. But, some people are in the market for pricy recommendations; some people, furthermore, are in the market for items that might last a lifetime. I haven’t owned my Tsuchiya Kaban bag for a lifetime, only about a year, but already, I can report that it is one of my favorite things I’ve ever purchased.
It’s the kind of product that a picture doesn’t really capture, because so much of its appeal is the specific feel, the specific smell. None of that was apparent when I ordered this bag, of course; I could only stare at the pictures online (for weeks, calculating, amortizing); so, when it arrived, this extra layer of sensory pleasure, this material reality, hit like a rogue wave out of nowhere. I was done for, the moment I opened the box.
This company has a LOT of offerings, and a lot of them aren’t for me. I find myself magnetized by their Tone Oilnume line, to which this bag belongs; the texture is amazing. I got a wallet to tuck inside —
People talk, sometimes, about the aura of craft; the feeling you get from an object that its maker really cared about. If such an aura exists —
The happy scrubber
For years, I used a long-handled plastic brush to scrub dishes and scour pans. It was cheap and charmless, and the angle of the handle was somehow always wrong. This brush made me slightly angry every time I used it.
I finally got wise and discarded that brush, replacing it with a couple of these bristly dudes from Jinen, the great Japanophile emporium. Like the old brush, they are cheap; unlike the old brush, they are fun and interesting. Using them makes me happy, not angry.
Take some time to explore Jinen’s offerings; I guarantee you’ll find a treasure or three. The Hibi incense matches are wonderful.
The unlikely gadget
This is one of those gadgets that seems like it should be good in theory, a disaster in practice. Here’s the twist: it really works!
The Remington HKVAC2000C, with its BUILT-IN VACUUM, sort of changed my life. I keep my hair buzzed short, head and beard alike. Maintenance is just a quick session with a clipper every week or so. Historically, this meant an explosion of tiny hair clippings. Of course, I tried my best to clean up; of course, I always missed some. Thus, I left behind a dusting of annoying evidence; thus, I became a monster. I was tired of being a monster.
As a hair clipper, this gadget is exactly average. As a gift —
The praise magnet
I was torn on including this; more than any of my other recommendations, it feels like surrending a secret. That’s absurd, of course: this overshirt was advertised to me on Instagram. And yet! And yet. It has generated more compliments, more steadily, than any article of clothing I have ever owned.
Wax London’s overshirts are mildly premium-priced, but honestly, the expense-to-praise ratio is very, very favorable. There are many colorways to choose from; I do not know if they all generate compliments at the same rate.
The whole thing is pleasantly mysterious, because the overshirt does not, to me, seem that remarkable. In fact, after I received it, I thought I’d probably return it; buuut I forgot about it, and the return window closed … you know how it goes. Then, when I wore it into the world, I was buffeted with praise; incredible. It keeps happening. My instincts are all wrong, and this overshirt is all right.
It would make a good gift for someone who appreciates a nice piece of light outerwear and could, perhaps, use a few more compliments in their life.
The books of the year
These two novels were, for me, the books of the year. I truly think any fiction reader will love at least one of them.
Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea is the great near-future science fiction novel. It is interested in different kinds of minds —
It’s worth buying this novel in print, in part, for the beautifully rendered glyphs that represent a nascent octopus language. I don’t want to say too much more, because discovering them —
Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow tracks a deep creative relationship over decades; it is, in that sense, a professional love story, and why don’t we have more of those?
There are professional love stories behind so many of the things we enjoy most —
And, hey, maybe it’ll get you into video games!
I found this novel’s moments of triumph totally electric, physically thrilling; some of its other moments, one in particular, made me cry.
The unproblematic fave
I have fond, intense memories of reading, and rereading, and reading again the children’s picture book by Peter Spier titled simply: People.
It belongs to a genre that was always catnip to me: encyclopedic, with each spread of pages offering dozens of tiny, detailed drawings to pore over. Spier drew bodies; he drew eyes; noses; houses; hobbies. He drew so many of the things that make us who we are.
A book about human difference originally published in 1980 does not necessarily sound like something that would stand the test of time. It is a testament to how totally ahead of the curve Peter Spier was —
This book would make a great gift for any child in your life. I believe that it had a seriously constructive effect on me, though of course I didn’t understand at the time just how impressive it was. I just loved looking at the drawings —
As I write this, and remember how much time I spent with this book, I’m tearing up a little bit. Peter Spier died in 2017. What a contribution.
The surprise factory
I’m an intense fan of Hayao Miyazaki, the guiding force behind Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. I have, therefore, already acquired two copies of Shuna’s Journey, his early manga just published in English for the first time —
You can order Shuna’s Journey from 50 Watts Books. While you’re there, you might also order:
A Dictionary of Color Combinations, a volume both lovely AND useful. I have legitimately consulted it many times, designing all sorts of things.
Manhoru by Thomas Couderc, the book of Japanese manhole covers. If you’re not familiar with this form of artistry, you must go take a peek.
Emile: The Helpful Octopus by Tomi Ungerer. Pairs well with The Mountain in the Sea.
The Night Life of Trees by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai, and Ramsingh Urveti, one of those relatively rare books printed in “dark mode”.
Rainbow Goblins by Ul de Rico, which I praised in last year’s gift guide for its liquid beauty and deep weirdness. “Isn’t this what a children’s book is supposed to do? Plant a little bomb with a slow fuse that will go off unpredictably at some point in the future?”
Any one of these picture books—I mean, just look at them!
50 Watts Books is THE source online for books that are beautiful and surprising; books you didn’t know you ought to be looking for, because who could imagine there might exist a book in which every page is just a gorgeous close-up photo of rock, richly colored and textured?
(Yes, I bought that one.)
The new editions
I’ve hooted about these for months, so I’ll keep it short. I don’t need much space, anyway; my case is airtight. These books
- are lovely, affordable paperbacks;
- inhabit a shared fictional milieu, the hyperreal Penumbraverse; and they
- GLOW IN THE DARK!!
You see? It has the inevitability of a mathematical proof. Call up your local bookstore, say you’d like to get the two Sloan novels. Make sure they are these new editions, published in 2022.
That concludes this year’s gift guide! Thanks, as always, for following along.
P.S. I’ll be back on December 7 with another proper newsletter.