A few years ago we hosted a dinner party for two other couples. Seated at the dining table, one of the husbands looked meaningfully at his wife and pointed to our table centerpiece, a glass bowl filled with decorative stones with tea-light candles and flowers floating in water. He said, “The bowl looks nice this way, doesn’t it?” Clearly, there was some subtext the rest of us were missing.
It turned out that he had committed the unpardonable sin of giving his wife a kitchen “gift with a plug” for her birthday one year. She took umbrage at a gift which seemed to pigeonhole her with a traditional gender stereotype, and she returned the insult (with a twist) by presenting him with a decorative glass bowl which was as undesirable—and useless—for him as his gift was for her. The lesson he learned: Be very careful about giving kitchen gifts to your wife. But, of course, kitchen gifts are perfectly appropriate if it’s the right gift for the right person.
To start, we can probably agree that kitchen-y gifts are fine if it’s for a man, or if a woman has asked for a particular item, or if it’s for yourself. In addition, I generally think kitchen gifts are ok...
If they are colorful or novel:
Silicone spatulas and spoons that withstand high heat are great for non-stick coating or on your most treasured pots and pans. I asked for these last Christmas and my husband got them for me. In case you are trying to decide on just one: the spoon gets much less use than the spatula, the thin flexible side of which works great to scrape down precious last drops of pan sauces. Will got these from Crate & Barrel, but Williams-Sonoma and other major kitchen stores also carry similar items. This year, I am asking for a multi-colored plastic coated whisk to work with demi-glaces and gravies.
If they are gadgety or associated with gourmands:
Though we have a more expensive (and bulkier) stainless-steel French mandoline with a julienne blade and a stand, the slicer we actually grab is a simple and lightweight Kyocera which takes up much less room in our drawer. We ordered it through Amazon for about $20. Sure it doesn’t have a julienne blade—though it’s certainly possible to get that model instead—but it does such a fast job of slicing in 4 different choices of thicknesses. If I need to julienne something, I am happy to stack up mandolined vegetables and fruits to do the final matchstick slicing myself. Be sure also to order a cut-protection glove to go along with any mandoline since mandoline use is perilous unless you have proper protection.
Since you're going to have steel-mesh protection for your hands anyway, I would suggest a few Microplane graters as well. Two sizes are really handy: the longer thin zester for lemons and limes; and the wider ribbon grater for parmesan or chocolate shavings.
If the gift is artisanal or exotic or sophisticated (or anything European):
Especially if there is a baker in the household or if you use lots of recipes with metric measurements, a scale (with both ounces and grams) is indispensable. We use it ALL the time. After ditching the cup measure and deciding to follow grams/ounces instead, Will discovered that his breads and pie crusts yielded more consistently satisfying results.
No one looks at our olive-wood table cheese grater and our salt bowl (for salt crystals) and thinks that these items are offensively gender-stereotyped. These particular items were brought back from San Gimignano (in Tuscany), but we see similar items in stores everywhere. Speaking of wooden salt bowls, I really get a lot of use from the dual-drawer bamboo salt cellar which we first saw in Hawaii but were able to order from Amazon. I have fine sea salt in the top drawer and coarse kosher salt in the bottom drawer. It sits right next to our stove range, and we use it constantly.
When I look around my well-stocked kitchen (my mother thinks I have the neatest items!), I see lots of items which I could not cook without. That doesn’t mean I want holiday or birthday presents to consist of blenders or toasters (unless they are super-special and unique). Nor do I particularly favor too-cute items with limited utility (read: cookie cutters in the shape of a reindeer). However, any of the above categories of gifts are more than welcome—and some of the smaller items (like a silicone spatula) make nice stocking stuffers. And, yes, to be safe, do avoid items with plugs…