You were brought up right: You’d never show up at a someone’s home for a weekend in the country, a dinner party, or a holiday feast empty-handed.
But stop it with the soaps and candles already! The best gifts are things your hosts never knew they needed, but will want to use every day.
1. BOWL: Perfect Pourer
I’ve had a soft spot for Bennington Pottery ever since the 1990s, when I lived in the Vermont town where it’s made. It’s durable, beautiful, and manages to look right at home just about anywhere: It fits into the kitchens of my most starkly minimalist friends as comfortably as it does in the dining rooms of the décor traditionalists I know.
In my experience, this little, twelve-ounce bowl is universally irresistible: Its size and spout make it perfect for serving sauce, or for scrambling an egg or two. ($24)
2. BUBBLY: Biodynamic Beauty
When in doubt, bring Champagne. Who doesn’t love to have a good bottle of bubbly on hand—to drink straightaway, or to save for an occasion (leave that decision up to your host).
Famous wines from august producers like Dom Pérignon and Taittinger are always a good bet—but you could also bring your hosts something fantastic they might not have tried before, like Franck Pascal’s “Reliance.” Made from organic grapes, using biodynamic practices, neither sugar nor sulfites are added. It’s dry and bright and immensely enjoyable to drink and, for such high quality, reasonably priced. ($60)
3. CALENDAR: Dutch Treat
There are plenty of things about my Dutch heritage that make me proud: Dutch painting. Dutch soccer. Dutch licorice. And the calendars that many Dutch people hang over their toilets.
Weird, maybe. But it’s also super smart: These are perpetual celebration calendars, no particular year attached, in which one records birthdays. Only birthdays.
And the tradition of hanging it in the one room in every home that cannot be avoided for a full day guarantees it will be noticed—and that birthdays will not be forgotten. This colorful floral number is in English (made in the U.S. by Rifle Paper Company), and is available from the Museum of Modern Art’s Design Store—a source for countless clever gifts. ($26)
4. COCKTAIL SHAKER: Graffiti on the Rocks
You’d think one cocktail shaker would be enough. But I’ve already got three (maybe four? who’s counting?), and I still had to have this one—a delightful bit of bar ware that looks just like a spray-paint can, and makes you feel like a brilliant underground artist when you’re shaking up some sidecars. ($27.50)
5. SPOONS: Good Wood
As most of my close friends know, I always have a small wooden spoon tucked into my bag or backpack (alongside a cotton napkin or two—which also make excellent gifts). Oatmeal, yogurt, really just about anything I eat from a bowl, tastes better when eaten with a wooden spoon.
My favorite (a gift a friend picked up for me in Korea) was perfect and served me well for years—until it snapped under the pressure of some too-hard ice cream last summer. This wild cherry “chowder spoon” from Pennsylvania-based Jonathan Simons has replaced it: It’s just the right size, shape, and weight. Bring your host a pair of them. ($18 per spoon)
6. TRAY: Finnish Favorite
Trays didn’t figure much in my family’s household when I was growing up: They made rare appearances, to serve breakfasts in bed on birthdays, or soup on bed-bound sick days. It wasn’t until deep into adulthood that I started to love them, and to collect them in different shapes and sizes.
One of my favorites comes from the design geniuses of Marimekko, in its signature poppy pattern, Unikko. Lightweight but sturdy, it’s a model of cheerful utility. ($47)
7. VERMOUTH: Effortless Apéritif
Ever since I was given a bottle of this beautiful Spanish vermouth as a gift a few years ago, it has become the gift I most often bring to hosts. Primitivo Quiles is a surprise hit—vermouth is underrated!—and it only costs about $21. Best drunk in a simple highball with soda or tonic and a squeeze of citrus juice. It’s like the most delicious soft drink you’ve ever had, but with a quiet kick.
The bottle is so elegant one may be tempted to keep it on the bar for all to see, but gently remind your host to keep it in the fridge once it’s opened: Vermouth lives longer and tastes better that way.