Robin's 2023 gift guide
Welcome to my 2023 gift guide! This is my fifth year circulating one. I love doing them, and I’ve received many reports that those of you reading this really do follow the links and buy the things I recommend, often in quantities that are very meaningful for these small-to-medium-sized companies.
So: thank you! Keep it up.
If you’d like to skip my preamble, you can jump straight to each section: consumable gifts, durable goods, and books.
This is an archived edition of Robin’s newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.
For longtime subscribers, some recommendations will be familiar, because I simply do not believe in rebooting the gift guide every year, the way many magazines and websites feel they must. When you’ve selected a great gift, seen it received with enthusiasm … why mess around?? Every year, for many years, a friend bought me the exact same Bundt cake from Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. It was wonderful. You could be that friend.
But don’t worry: you’ll also find a substantial serving of new recs below.
My recommendations are, as ever, U.S.-centric. This is the the part of the world that I know, and this is the part of the world where I shop. International readers: thanks for your forbearance.
One more thing before we begin! If you plan to ship anything this season (or any season), sign up for Pirate Ship, which allows you to purchase USPS and UPS postage online at rock-bottom rates, all through a simple, clear interface free from any cruft, with no subscription required.
I know that sounds like an advertisement but, in fact, I just think Pirate Ship is great. The cloying theme (ARRR!) is a small price to pay for such convenience.
If you print more than one shipping label a month (e.g., for online returns) then just buy this Rollo label printer. It will pay for itself, in terms of time saved and sanity preserved, within two years.
Finally, remember that when you buy and print USPS postage through Pirate Ship, you can drop your parcel in the designated area at any post office —
This program brought to you by
We begin with the Fat Gold gift set. Our 24-page recipe zine was a huge hit last holiday season, so we went back to the Riso squad at Chute Studio in Oakland to print a second edition, with some additions and amendments new for this year.
The gift set combines a tin of our Standard oil (bold and peppery) with a tin of our Blue oil (fragrant and fruity) and the 24-page zine, which also includes a concise, compelling introduction to extra virgin olive oil.
Here’s a token of thanks for subscribing to this newsletter: use the discount code
DRAGONMOON to get $10 off any order of $65 or more in the online shop. That code will be good until December 1.
Good olive oil is for everyone to use every day. As we’ve detailed in our Guide to Extra Virgin Olive Oil, this is the rare substance that’s both decadently delicious and stupendously healthy. It feels like a glitch in the universe; you should be pouring it on everything.
An annual subscription to Fat Gold provides a comprehensive olive oil education —
It will be some holiday morning, sooner than you think. You’ll be sitting around drinking tea or sipping coffee. You’ll want a stick of biscotti … or three. Search your feelings —
This is that biscotti: the best I’ve ever had, which is saying a lot, for I have sampled widely.
Enzo’s Table is a treasure of the San Joaquin Valley. Their almond butter is, like their biscotti, the best product of its kind. Their Fresno Chili Crush olive oil—made not by infusion, like most flavored oils, but by actually throwing fresh chiles into the mill along with the olives—is perhaps the world’s most versatile condiment. And I am newly obsessed with Enzo’s caramelized onion crackers.
You can fill up a very tasty virtual cart here, is what I’m saying.
The beans, beans, BEANS
Beans don’t take so long to cook because they’re beans; they take so long to cook because they’re OLD. Many years old, usually. Old and tough and hard.
Primary Beans prints the harvest date on their packaging, a total rarity among beanslingers. (I appreciate this because we do the same thing with Fat Gold, and it’s rare on the olive oil shelf, too.) Almost always, that harvest date is the most recent available for the bean in question. As a result, these beans don’t have to be pre-soaked; you can get straight to cooking, either on the stovetop or in an Instant Pot.
Primary offers a whole range of interesting, surprising varieties. Here’s what I think. I think you ought to get their All the Beans set for someone and wrap all the packages individually. The effect will be at first hilarious, and in due course delicious. This is the set I bought for my household, a few months ago, and we are already about halfway through.
Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that can redeem, even transform, an experience. Fat Gold rarely does in-person sales events; earlier this year, we broke our rule, and the event was, commercially, a dud. However, about midway through, one of the other vendors came ambling over: Tony Adams, founder of Mill Valley Pasta Co., who wanted to say hello and offer us a few bags of pasta to try.
And now I have a new favorite pasta producer.
Tony’s pasta is air-dried, nice and slow, without any fans or blowers. I did not previously understand this to be a variable in pasta production, let alone an important one, but I can report to you that this pasta really does have something special to offer, above and beyond the other premium noodles available in the Bay Area and elsewhere.
We ate our way through Tony’s offering, then ordered several bags to restock. My favorite so far has been the porcini radiatore, which are so savory and satisfying they stand on their own, hardly anything else required, just a little garlic and olive oil.
The mafaldine shape is new to me; it comes in four stately clusters, and it would make for a fun dinner party.
I love Mill Valley Pasta Co.’s packaging, which reveals the inspiration behind the name of each pasta shape —
The tiny jar
I’m a huge fan of Daybreak Seaweed Co.’s offerings, and their newest addition presses all my buttons: ume … shiso … furikake! I just received a jar last week, and I can confirm that this is one of those omni-seasonings that works on everything. Sprinkle it on toast. Sprinkle it on beans. Sprinkle it on steak? Not yet, but I’m going to try.
If ume! shiso! furikake! is too much for you, don’t overlook Daybreak’s core offering, their seaweed salt, which is, in nearly every situation that calls for salt, a simple yet undeniable upgrade. Roman soldiers should have been paid in this.
The other tiny jar
“Robin sure does like tiny jars of flavorful substances,” you might observe. Yes, he does. In fact, they might be his favorite thing.
Pictured above is Boonville Barn Collective’s formidable take on Piment d’Espelette, dubbed “d’Ville” for Boonville, the cozy California town that is their home. In my household, Piment d’Ville finds its way into everything. Spice up some eggs; swirl it into the salad dressing; knead it, along with salt and pepper, into ground lamb for burgers.
Boonville Barn Collective’s Calabrian chile flakes are also a household staple —
A final advisory. Keep an eye out for the reappearance of the whole dried chiles—ancho, guajillo, cascabel, and more. I use these mainly to make Chili Colorado. The first time I did, the result was so good it brought tears to my eyes. What the heck, here’s the recipe!
Robin's Chili Colorado Worth Crying Over
Boonville Barn Collective dried chiles:
- 3 ancho
- 4 guajillo
- 5 espelette
- 3 cascabel
- 5-6 yahualica
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 2 pounds pork shoulder
- 5 cloves garlic
- 5 bay leaves
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Whole cumin
Remove the stems and seeds from the dried chiles. Cut the larger chiles into small pieces, at most 3 inches long. In a small bowl, cover the chiles with chicken stock and soak, 20-30 minutes.
Pull the chiles out of the stock, depositing them in your mortar or blender, and set the stock aside. Grind and/or blend the chiles to make a smooth paste.
Cut the pork shoulder into roughly 1-inch pieces. Season the pieces generously with salt and pepper. Let them sit for 15 minutes.
Chop the garlic into small pieces.
In your tiniest pan, toast the cumin very lightly, then grind it into powder.
Coat the inside of a large pot with extra virgin olive oil. Brown the chunks of pork shoulder in the oil. Add the garlic, cumin, and bay leaves. Stir and roast for 1 minute.
Pour in the chicken stock you used to soak the dried chiles, along with the rest of the chicken stock.
Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
Add the chile paste to the pot, stirring well.
Simmer for 2-3 hours, until the pork is very tender.
The chili will be thin when you begin simmering but, as the water in the stock evaporates, it will thicken and darken. At the end of the 2-3 hours, it should be like a thick soup, its color a very rich red. Monitor the chili’s thickness throughout and, if it’s getting too thick too soon, turn down the heat and add some water.
Serve over polenta, rice, or anything else you like.
My friends at INNA make the best jam in the country; they also produce some of the cutest gift sets. Their combo of a jar of jam along with a jar of their house blend herbal tea —
Alternatively, you could do a lot worse than to score a jar of jalapeño jam, some local cheese, and some good crackers, and make that your offering at any/all holiday gatherings this year.
You’d be in good company. INNA’s founder Dafna writes:
This whole INNA jam thing started one Thanksgiving years ago when I came across something I’ve never seen before. Some friends were serving these amazing little appetizers —
crackers topped with cream cheese and jalapeño jam. Well, I thought those little appetizers were just the best thing ever and proceeded to eat so many of them that I couldn’t really eat the Thanksgiving meal that followed.
I thought to myself, “self, I’ve got to get some of that jalapeño jam,” and checked every store I could think of, but alas, no jalapeño jam to be found anywhere. I finally gave up on finding it at a local store, and decided to just make it myself from scratch. I developed a recipe, made a batch of jam, kept a jar for myself and gave the rest away to friends and neighbors. Everyone who tasted the jalapeño jam got hooked, much like I did, and asked for more. Before I knew it, I was making batch after batch of jalapeño jam, and INNA was born.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that INNA’s super spicy ginger snacks were named the world’s best snack for ginger FREAKS!
It is the proprietors of INNA who introduced me to J. Street Chocolate, which is out of this world, in the sense that it tastes like it comes from the future, and/or an alien planet. Julia Street is doing something super special over there; I get a clear sense of new culinary terrain being charted.
Some of that terrain is made of white chocolate, with bits of toasted sesame and preserved lemon embedded within. Maybe this formulation struck me so memorably because I don’t like (or: didn’t think I liked) white chocolate. It was one of those bites, rarer and rarer as you get older: “I’ve never tasted anything like this before … ”
All of J. Street’s inventions are worth a look. If you’re bored with all the usual fancy chocolate makers, here is your alternative. And, if you’re one of those ginger FREAKS, don’t miss the bar made with INNA’s own super spicy ginger!
Down south of San Jose, in the vicinity of Gilroy, California, Patrick Martin of Proxy Coffee is quietly roasting the best coffee you can get for a hundred miles around.
One of Patrick’s roasts in particular has become our household staple: Omen, which he calls a “dark roast”, but which has nothing in common with the dark roasts you might know from coffee chains and truck stops. To me, it is more properly a “perfect roast”—almost the Platonic coffee.
If you live in a household in which coffee roast preferences are perhaps … not totally aligned … let me suggest that Omen might do the seemingly impossible, and provide a common ground. (Pun not intended, but accepted.) Here is a bag of beans that somehow checks every box.
I’ll begin the durable goods section with a semi-consumable: a calendar.
I’m a huge fan of the Seattle-based studio called ANEMONE. They offer an array of breathtakingly beautiful zines but/and their simplest offering might be my favorite: the Long Calendar, showing three months at a time, a tall stretch rather than a squat rectangle.
You know I appreciate things that frame time differently, more deeply. It might be fun and interesting to start the year ahead with a new perspective.
I’ve purchased a lot of items from NYC-based Outlier over the years, and have returned approximately half of them because it turned out they were too cool for me. Or, alternatively: I was not cool enough for them.
The items I’ve kept, I’ve loved, and among those is the Ramiefall Yes pant. I wear these as around-the-house pants and even pajamas, but you could certainly wear them out into the world. The fabric is light, with a nice tooth; sort of like a grittier linen. “Ramiefall”? It’s apparently spun from the fibers of a plant in the nettle family. Just like J. Street Chocolate, many of Outlier’s textiles feel like imports from another timeline and/or planet, and Ramiefall is no exception.
It’s a wonderful company, independent and pathbreaking, even if approximately 50% of their stuff is too cool for me.
Here it is! Here is the best sweatshirt: Merz b. Schwanen’s original, made from fabric produced on a loopwheeler, which is a machine that weaves a continuous tube of fabric, rather than a flat sheet —
Here’s a view of the machines. They are old-fashioned, and rare, only operated today in Japan and Germany. There’s a bit of a “last days of metal type” vibe here:
I own plenty of sweatshirts, purchased from many different brands, most of them not produced on loopwheelers. Most of these sweatshirts are perfectly fine.
Merz b. Schwanen’s sweatshirts, however, are beyond fine. They are remarkable, with a fit and finish that evokes formalwear, in the sense that wearing them makes me stand a little straighter.
I should note that, like many 100% cotton garments of this kind, shrinkage is a real concern. The Merz b. Schwanen sweatshirts I own fit perfectly —
(While the Merz b. Schwanen T-shirt is also excellent, it is not, in fact, the best T-shirt. The best T-shirt is the John, from Tenue de Nîmes of Amsterdam.)
If you’re going to air-dry your fancy German sweatshirts, these are the clothespins to use! Kevin’s Quality Clothespins: the Ferrari of clothespins. The MacBook Pro of clothespins.
I know it sounds like a joke, but they really are terrific, carved with little features that feel good in the hand, make you smile. Life is too short, and your home too small, not to fill it with things that make you smile.
The bike bell
Here’s another powerful smile-maker. In all my years canvassing streets and sidewalks, all around the world, I’ve never heard a better bicycle bell than Spurcycle’s. This is the one; this is the tone; this is the reason to ride.
I’ve had one of these bells mounted on my bike for several years, and I ring it at every opportunity. I ring it when I’m coming up behind a pedestrian; I ring it when I’m approaching an intersection; I ring it hello and I ring it goodbye. The tone is pure and resonant; it holds and carries —
At this point, it is almost more accurate to say I have a bicycle for my bell, rather than a bell for my bicycle.
Last year, I recommended Tsuchiya Kaban’s leather goods, like this bag that I continue to carry ecstatically. Last year, I acknowledged that they are really very expensive. But … I don’t know. Think about how you spend your money over the course of a year; think about how it trickles out in a dozen ways. My bag makes me happy every time I touch it; isn’t there some powerful amortization at work there?
If you or your gift recipient already have a beloved bag, consider this nice capacious wallet. I keep just one credit card in my everyday wallet, attached to my phone; all the rest are stored in this wallet, which I keep inside my bag. It feels wonderful in the hand, and I always appreciate the little ceremony of unwinding the loop to access what’s inside, winding it again when I’m done.
The candle holder
Jinen is a smorgasbord, packed with treats at every price level. I’ve purchased many of their selections over the years, but/and this is one that has leapt beyond “oh, that’s nice” into the realm of treasure:
The Nousaku brass candle holder comes with several brass spikes, small but very pleasantly weighty. The idea is to stick one or several of these spikes into your candle at various points along its length. When the candle burns past those points, the spikes fall, striking the bell-shaped holder with a tone that is almost unbelievably clear and calm, and somehow always a surprise.
I should add, the candle holder doesn’t only ring when the spikes fall; it rings, softly, basically whenever and however you touch it. It is so well-formed that it seems to bubble with song. What a wonderful thing to have in your home.
A theme emerges: paying extra for things that will make you happy over and over again; paying extra for a bright clear tone. I’ll energetically defend both of these principles.
Pluto is an all-in-one synthesizer, complete with sound sources, a sequencer, and cool effects. Its creator, Justin Van Slembrouck, documented Pluto’s design and development on Instagram as he progressed; it was fascinating to watch, and then magical to receive the finished product. Because it’s so compact and complete, I’ve found it fun to tinker with the instrument over coffee in the morning. You sit and sip, twirl and fiddle, make a sound no one in the universe has ever heard before, then start your day. Pluto is pricy, as befits a piece of artisan electronics made in the U.S., but/and for the right person (which might be you) it will provide years of exploration.
Amy Burek of Awkward Ladies Club is a Risograph wizard. Her online shop is packed with delights, but/and the vegetable prints, in particular, are among the best Risograph work I’ve ever seen. There are two other prints listed in Amy’s shop alongside the green cabbage pictured above —
Not to be missed, the zine titled My Favorite Microbes would be a delightful stocking stuffer for the right person.
I’ll begin with a couple of online bookstores so rich and interesting they’re worth browsing in their entirety. These are both small operations, curated and opinionated —
50 Watts Books, the emporium of Will Schofield, a wellspring of the weird and wonderful. Start with the arresting illustrations of Botaniphoria by Asuka Hishiki, or perhaps Toshi Omigari’s Arcade Game Typography, the perfect gift for someone who loves video games and their history. Every child must read and become mildly disturbed by The Rainbow Goblins.
Belt Publishing, the great independent voice of the Rust Belt. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and I’m gifting Detroit in 50 Maps to a few friends this year. If you live in the Rust Belt, they might publish an anthology about your town! Anyone, anywhere, can certainly appreciate a great pie cookbook.
Now, a few specific recommendations.
So Many Books, by Gabriel Zaid, is the book of books: explaining and reframing the reality of this mass, this flood, this (sometimes) compulsion. Its size reads almost as a joke: the book about vastness is palm-sized, mercifully short and punchy. It belongs in every library, like the bay leaf in every pot.
P.S. If you don’t buy this directly from Paul Dry Books, you are a monster.
The Walking Man, by Jiro Taniguchi, published in English by Ponent Mon, is one of the most beautiful graphic novels I’ve ever read. It is mostly wordless, and also basically plotless, simply chronicling a moon-faced fellow’s long walks through the Japanese landscape. The art is beautiful and detailed; the time captured here, happily adrift in the flux of urban life, with a tree and/or stream never far from sight, feels basically perfect. A great gift for the comic reader and/or energetic walker in your life.
I’ll now recommend the sequence of Hild, published in 2013, and Menewood, just out, both by Nicola Griffith. Set in seventh-century Britain, these are the Ultimate Winter Books: rich, absorbing, brimming over with sensory detail. Time passes in these stories, great swaths of it; Nicola revels in the seasons. It’s all just perfect, the work of a true master. Get these books for the big-time reader in your life. Wrapped up together, the parcel will be so weighty your recipient will suspect you’ve given them a kettlebell.
Here’s a book that uses its very specific subject as a lever to crack open the megascale, the universal, even the sublime; in other words, here’s my favorite kind of book. Dust, by Jay Owens, is a globetrotting odyssey that touches science, nature, and geopolitics. It grew out of Jay’s pathbreaking email newsletter, and so I believe one reason to read this book, among many, might be the provocation it suggests: what kind of project might YOU begin, that could conceivably take you to places this wild, and result in a piece of work this formidable? Never hurts to ask. Jay will show you the way.
Dilla Time by Dan Charnas is a biography both personal and cultural, tracing the life and influence of an artist whose sound changed everything, even if he was never, in his lifetime, a household name; even if he isn’t today. It’s a book about music and technology, about the way global culture works. It’s also about Detroit, and the Detroiter named James DeWitt Yancey, who became J Dilla. If you know a hip hop fan, buy them this book and enjoy the view as their eyes bulge, betraying their disbelief that YOU understood enough to get THIS for THEM.
I love shopping! I do. I love commerce —
Am I simply bourgeois? Yes, and I’ll wave that flag proudly. This is a big part of my politics: which is not a politics of “free markets” or “free trade”, but rather of systems that can support commerce and craft at every level, especially the smallest and most careful.
We are a long way from such systems, in the present configuration of our world. It’s too difficult to make things at a scale that’s satisfying and sustainable for everyone involved. Even so: rich veins of excellence endure, and I hope I’ve traced a few in this guide.
Not too long ago, the shiny new James Webb Space Telescope and the tough old Hubble Space Telescope worked together to produce this image, combining visible light (Hubble) with infrared (JWST) to render a sharper image than ever before of a little patch of sky:
How little a patch? About one-sixtieth the width of the moon. Look at it, full of galaxies. Galaxies! Each one full of stars. Somewhere out there, they’ve got bike bells and candle holders, or the equivalent. It is a certainty.
Science fiction at its wildest doesn’t do this justice. The dazzle of the universe seen clearly; the dizzying enormity of it. I believe that the great challenge of the next hundred years and more, for politics and culture and everything else, is to digest this reality.
I think we can do it.
In the meantime, there’s life to be lived, and tiny jars of flavorful substances to be gifted. There’s no incompatability there. A jar of jalapeño jam waits on the table; the galaxies wheel above. It’s all real.
I love being alive on this planet, in this universe. Look at that picture! Thanks for being here with me.
P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter around November 27 —