An Artisanal Gift Guide
Give a gift that's built to last. Here are a few ideas drawn from our library of master artisans.
By JOHN MARCOM
As we near the end of our first year, we’ve made a list: Gift ideas drawn from the stories we’ve published in 2015. We started this magazine to champion principles that sometimes get forgotten these days: an acute sense of the authentic; a capacity for experimentation based on wide, eclectic experience, and a determination to create something of enduring quality.
We always are curious about what it takes to revive those very principles in today’s frenetic, high-tech world; well, here’s one step: Give a well-crafted gift. Here are some ideas from our writers.
In our summer issue, Ben Marks wrote about the quest for the perfect harmonica. Lee Oskar, he wrote, had become so fed up with the quality of Marine Bands that he started his own harmonica company. He sells harmonicas made to be taken apart and put back together again, so you can easily replace the reed plates (which Lee Oskar also makes) when they wear out. They start at $55.95, and are available by mail through his website.
The Marine Band is the harmonica that started it all—the one the best blues musicians in the world embraced as their harp of choice. Choose from the 1896 classic ($32.96), the Deluxe ($60.34), or the Joe Filisko-designed Thunderbird ($109.69).
For those who already know how to bend notes and want to see how low they can go, check out the 12-hole, three-reeds-per-chamber ChromaBender, designed and sold directly by New Zealand harp customizer Brendan Power (£120).
That issue also profiled Mike Snowden, who makes cigar box guitars. He told us how he relishes the opportunity to create one-of-a-kind instruments that, despite their simplicity, are surprisingly versatile, each one with its own distinctive sound. Last we checked, there were a few completed models on his website, starting at $299.
Back in 2008, Todd Oppenheimer, our founding editor and publisher, wrote an article for The New Yorker that later inspired him to create this magazine. It was a profile of Bob Kramer, who makes some of the finest custom-made kitchen knives in the world. An expansion of that story, entitled “The Kitchen Bladesmith,” now appears in our pages, and it has remained one of our most popular features.
Many chefs now drool over the possibility of owning a custom-made Kramer knife. Kramer does take orders but demand his gotten so high he only sells custom knives occasionally, by lottery. And his prices are now steep ($200 per inch for a standard carbon steel blade, $500 per inch for the more ornamental Damascus). If you don’t have that kind of time or money, you can find high-quality versions of his signature lines, produced industrially by Zwillings J.A. Henckels, the German cutlery giant. The knives are sold through the kitchen supply store Sur La Table. They come in stainless steel, which is built for abuse and easier care, and in carbon steel, which must be protected from rust but takes a sharper edge than stainless steel, and re-sharpens more easily.
Before purchasing, you might peruse Kramer’s website for further explanation of the differences between his various knives, how to care for them, and some useful accessories to consider. One accessory that no serious cook should pass up is the set of sharpening stones Kramer designed for Sur La Table. The composite materials that went into these stones sharpen blades with unusual efficiency. And the kit includes an adjustable bamboo stand to keep the stones in place while you’re sharpening. (If this intrigues, make sure the recipient of your gift watches Kramer’s video on sharpening technique, which is featured on the product page. It will save hours of learning, cut fingers, and ruined knives.)
In our summer issue, we went to some lengths to explore the mysterious wonders of clay as a cooking vessel. Our story about the “clay mystique” explained the scientific reasons that these pots have been so loved and celebrated by chefs such as Paula Wolfert. These pots tend to gain flavoring power with age, so a good cook might appreciate getting started with one this Christmas.
One shop that sells a wide variety is Bram, in Sonoma, California. One of their specialties is the Moroccan tagine, which recently has gained popularity in the west thanks to Wolfert’s writings. Tagines are made of earthenware, which has its advantages but tends to be fragile. So if you want the best of both world–a pot with the power of clay but the sturdiness of a metal vessel (or close to it), look for pots made of a new, high-tech clay called “flameware.”
Oakland-based Travis McFlynn makes one form of flameware that can withstand cooking in commercial ovens that reach 1,000 degrees. It can even go from the freezer to the stove, without seeming to notice the shock — a move would shatter most ceramic cookware. You can order his OSO flameware–the 5 quart Dutch Oven is $200– directly from SaraMcDesign.com. Delivery takes at least 12 weeks, which makes it a little late for Christmas, but any cook lucky enough to receive one will probably not mind the wait.
We also profiled a New Mexican craftsman, Felipe Ortega, who has spent his entire life perfecting the perfect vessel for beans. Cooking pots by Ortega and his students are available through Cafe Pasqual’s gallery in Santa Fe, priced according to size, at $100 a quart. They sell quickly; the gallery’s website advises you to email them or call 800-722-7672 to find out what’s on hand.
Since the new issue is devoted to toys–or, more specifically, toys that offer real possibilities for the world of play–it’s only fitting that we pluck out a few shopping suggestions. The most obvious is Roominate, an entirely new approach to making dollhouses. As David Munro reports in “Let Tinkerbell Tinker,” about what’s missing in toys for girls, both teachers and toymakers have never fully understood how girls learn through play; and that they too want to make things, just in their own way. Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen were among the first to understand this, and Roominate was the result.
And if you’re really into old-fashioned forms of playtime, consider a toy theatre from Victorian England. In the “The Rise and Fall of Toy Theatre,” Garrett Epps finds two delightful, antiquarian shops in old London that still carry relics from the heydey of English toy theatre. Both were started by an unusual theatrical entrepreneur named Benjamin Pollock, and the Toy Museum is now run by Eddy Fawdry, the son of a flamboyent BBC journalist who bought the shop from Pollock’s receiver. The other arm of the old toy theatre operation–Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop–operates not far away, in Covent Garden, selling replicas of the old theatres, complete with tiny, toy actors and booklets of the old plays.
In our Fall issue, which focused on “The Art of Alcohol,” we featured two libations that ought to enliven any party. One is a fine artisanal mezcal, called Montelobos (which sells for $60). As our story, “Mezcal’s Dance with Extinction,” explained, mezcal is actually the venerable grandfather to tequila: older, more traditional, more complex, and much stronger. (As the Montelobos team puts it in a promotional video, “tequila, to wake the living; mezcal, to wake the dead.”)
The other drink of choice is rum, which was America’s original spirit. Now, in the depths of hipster Brooklyn, a former nuclear engineer named Daniel Preston is reviving this time-honored drink by borrowing from rum’s Caribbean roots. Our profile of Preston, entitled “Rum’s Revenge,” focused on his new creation, Cacao Prieto. Since the rum is made with cacao that Preston grows on his family’s Caribbean farm, his distillery also produces fine chocolates–making for another potentially welcome addition to any holiday party. Both the chocolates and the rum are available at Cacao Prieto’s online store.