"These are the stockings," said my new brother-in-law, ending my nearly 40-year abstention from the obstacle course of the Christmas season. What did I—a Jewish bystander since my Nixon-era birth—know about filling a stocking? These stockings were particularly intimidating. I imagined an elephant with chilblains wondering what had happened to his hosiery.
The rules were simple enough—five presents per person, each present costing no more than $5—but I had no experience, no sense of the appropriate. Was I supposed to locate figurines of the Three Wise Men? Recordings of the Vienna Boys Choir? An inner Jewish voice said, "How about a nice mustard?" Wrong connotation, I thought, but something like mustard: petite, prettily packaged, nonperishable and, of course, aggressively gastronomic ... perhaps in the end revelatory. Was this solution subtly Jewish or merely obvious? I had no time to split hairs. I had cubic yards of stocking to fill.
A Southern Season (University Mall, 201 S. Estes Drive, Chapel Hill, 929-7133, www.southernseason.com) was inevitably my first stop. I wandered the aisles with my mind racing. I analyzed pairing rationales, plumbed my palate memory and calculated how much I could exceed the spending limit without triggering the Yuletide equivalent of an arms race. There were several old-world givens: pint-sized panettone (these days Southern Season carries Loison), Niederegger Marzipan ($4.95 for a 1.6-ounce bar) and Schuhmann's Wappen Lebkuchen (much better than Bahlsen). Lebkuchen—chewy Christmas cookies made of honey, nuts and spices, ideally imported from Nuremberg—are, to my mind, the one essential thing: the edible metaphor of Christmas in its folkloric and Germanic aspect. I wondered whether Walker Shortbread was a cliché, the culinary version of the Christmas sweater, but I was not going to stand on form where the essence of butter was concerned, and a plaid box went into the basket. In the grocery aisles, I grabbed several boxes of Café Du Monde Beignet Mix, which yields beignets miraculously like those served at the famed New Orleans café.
Chocolate was inevitable, but which of Southern Season's 300 bars to risk my reputation on? As others are Marlboro men, I am a Valrhona man, but Valrhona looks so trench-coated and fascistic in its pitch-black wrapper. It's the Darth Vader of the candy shelf, no doubt about it. Without in the least descending from the heights, I opted for several bars of Dolfin, a Belgian chocolate with beautiful pastel papers, and Bonnat, a French chocolate whose charming Belle Epoque wrapper depicts the church of St. Bruno in Voiron, the small town in which Félix Bonnat opened his shop 125 years ago. Southern Season offers 13 varieties of Dolfin and 11 varieties of Bonnat, choosing among which I doubt it's possible to go even fractionally wrong. Equally rarefied is Southern Season's selection of "fine" loose teas. Ranging in price from $1.75 to $16.95 per ounce, these teas easily outclass tinned and bagged varieties and make a reasonably elegant gift in their neat cellophane pouches.
It is mysteriously democratic that the world's greatest beers cost about as much per ounce as a random red plucked from Sam's Club. A Southern Season, Carrboro Beverage Co. (102A E. Main St., 942-3116) and the area's Total Wine & More stores (Crossroads Shopping Center, 333 Crossroads Blvd., Cary, 235-3322; Patterson Place, 3615 Witherspoon Blvd., Durham, 489-5082; Brier Creek Shopping Center, 8381 Brier Creek Parkway, Raleigh, 293-0362; 4261 The Circle at North Hills Street, Ste. 115, Raleigh, 232-2580; and Triangle Plaza, 6105 Capital Blvd., Raleigh, 235-0000) sell a number of civilizational glories for between $5 and $10 (call to check availability).
Brasserie Dupont's Saison Dupont is Belgian farmhouse ale that outthinks most comparably priced wine and substitutes nicely for any dry white. It's at once bracing and tentatively vernal, a beer for the Ides of March. It pairs superbly with the ground notes of bistro fare—Gruyère, walnut, mushroom, egg. The Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy in Rochefort, Belgium, has been producing beer since 1595. It presently produces three beers: Trappistes Rochefort 6 (dark ale), 8 (strong dark ale) and 10 (quadrupel). These are vinous, esoteric and polysemous, difficult beers that speak to who-knows-what theological mazes obscurely suffered by the monks who brew them.
Other locally available Trappist beers— Chimay, Koningshoeven/La Trappe, Orval and Westmalle—have their own rich, dark, labyrinthine souls. I have pondered giving an array of Trappist beers, but this would seem to place almost too much burden of subtlety on the recipient, as would giving, say, a copy of Pascal's Pensées. Traquair House Ale is brewed in the basement of "the oldest inhabited house in Scotland," as the bottle has it. The beer has a bitter, fruity depth that seems chastened and autumnal, and though I've never been to Scotland, I can imagine an ashen sky casting its shadows over the heather-clad hills. Unibroue, a Quebecois brewery that reverently interprets Belgian classics, will rescue those with scads of relatives and a limited budget. Unibroue's La Fin Du Monde, a spicy, fruity tripel, is a superb value at about $2.50 per bottle.
North Carolina has produced some of the world's signal astonishments: human flight, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Winstead Methodist Church's Water-Blanched Peanuts. Available at select Whole Foods and Harris Teeter stores, WMC's peanuts verge on the great Platonic peanut, in comparison to which ordinary peanuts are mere ghosts and shadows. Is some '50s-era atomic test responsible for this unnatural crispiness and intensity of flavor? According to the church, which is in Wilson, the secret is—sorry folks—a secret. The peanuts are blanched and fried, but an all-important additional step is revealed only to fellow Methodist churches. The downside is that all other peanuts are ruined forever; one will never again nibble at a bar without a faint sneer. Closer to home, Chapel Hill Toffee produces an exemplary old-school confection—a thin tile of pecan brittle veneered on both sides in dark chocolate and ground pecan—that is now available at numerous local gourmet outlets (see chapelhilltoffee.com for locations), while Miel Bon Bons in Carrboro (Carr Mill Mall, 200 N. Greensboro St., Ste. A5, 967-2313, mielbonbons.com) produces meticulous artisanal chocolates that would not look or taste amiss at Harrods. Four pieces, boxed like jewelry, cost $7–$10.
I am not a gadget guy. I have been on the receiving end of too many garlic peelers and dumpling presses to have any illusions about labor-saving devices. A chef's knife and cutting board are about what you need, with a KitchenAid Stand Mixer and a decent blender lurking in the background. Nonetheless, there are a few gadgets—a few, mind you—that are worth making a point of owning, and Kitchenworks (University Mall, 201 S. Estes Drive, Chapel Hill, 967-9388, kitchenworksinc.com) is a fine place to shop for them all.
The OXO swivel peeler doesn't look paradigm shattering, but it will peel five potatoes in the time competitors peel three. I'm equally devoted to the OXO cherry/ olive pitter and the Microplane grater/ zester (the rubber handle tends to break off, but even denuded the thing produces wonderfully snowy tufts of Parmigiano-Reggiano). Poaching eggs requires timing and wrist control and often results in an overdone yolk whose whites have absconded to become egg drop soup. Fusionbrands Poachpods—silicone cups that float like lily pads—produce perfect poached eggs without requiring vinegar vortices, last-minute paring or indeed anything resembling skill. Silicone has also revolutionized the oven mitt: the beauty of these new Day-Glo prostheses is that they can be rinsed in the sink or placed in the dishwasher. Opt for whatever brand and style feels comfortable.
Have my stocking stuffers always been well received? Not always. Items have a way of circling back to me in April. "What? You didn't like this?!" I will expostulate, but my feelings are not really ruffled. I do not mind being sent back to this particular drawing board.