Holiday gifts for food (and drink)-loving travelers

Holiday shopping is easy if the people on your list like to eat and/or imbibe. If they’re into travel–be it armchair or the real deal–the options are endless This year, think beyond the predictable bottle of wine or pricey “artisan” cookies and give reusable, portable, eco-friendly gifts or small-batch edibles that are the taste equivalent of a trip abroad.

As for where to get these items, look at farmers and flea markets, street fairs, specialty food shops, wineries/distilleries, and boutiques. One of my favorite spots to shop: foreign supermarkets.

For the green at heart

An inflatable wine bag is ideal for wine and spirit-loving travelers. They’re multi-use and work equally well for olive oil, vinegar, or other fluid specialty products.

A logo tote bag (preferably made from recycled materials) from a specialty food shop, winery, etc. is great for practical recipients. A co-worker recently brought me a signature navy blue number from Neal’s Yard Dairy, a famous cheese shop in London. In two months, it’s traveled to South America and across the U.S., doing time as a souvenir satchel, laundry and grocery bag, and all-purpose carry-on. When I don’t need it, i just roll it up and stash it in my duffel bag or day pack. Love it.

Gift a wine key (opener) salad tongs or bowl, chopsticks, or other kitchen utensils made from local, sustainable materials such as wood, antler, bone, bamboo, or shell. Do a quick online search or ask (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: phrasebooks) about the origins of said object. If you have any qualms about the eco-aspect, don’t buy it and let the shopkeeper know why.

[Photo credit: Flickr user noramunro]Drink coasters are always appreciated. I’ve picked up woven palm versions in Indonesia, as well as purchased colorful Portuguese azuelos tiles for this use. If the country or region you’re visiting is famous for its leather, woodwork, ceramics, or even recycled metal handicrafts, you’ll probably find a nice, inexpensive set of coasters. Again, be sure they’re made from sustainable materials.

Vintage kitchenware–even if it’s not functional–can be a great gift, especially if your intended is a collector. Salt-and-pepper shakers, wine openers, cheese knives, a set of Melamine bowls: hit up antique stores or street fairs, because you’re sure to find treasures at affordable prices.

For the adventurer

A pocketknife or plastic folding knife from a famous cheese shop or winery is indispensable to hikers, campers, foragers, and DIYer’s who enjoy a good picnic while on the road. Just make sure your loved ones aren’t the type who don’t check their bags when they fly. A mini-cutting board of wood/bamboo or slate is also a nice gift.

Know someone who’s into mountaineering or other high-altitude pursuits? Coca leaf tea (or for a less effective but more entertaining option, caramels or hand candy) really works, and it’s legal.

For the locavore

If you have a friend of the “Eat local/Support family farms” variety, a gift from your travels can still fit the mold. Whenever and wherever I travel, I make a point of purchasing local, handcrafted foodstuffs: jam or other preserves, honey, cheese, candy. What I buy depends upon where I am and whether or not I have to abide (cough, cough) by customs regulations or have access to refrigeration.

If customs and temperature aren’t an issue, consider a gift of cheese, charcuterie, or even some spectacular produce (A would-be suitor once presented me with a tiny disc of goat cheese and one perfect peach before I departed on a flight; I wasn’t into the guy but loved the thoughtfulness of his gift).

If you you’re looking for a shelf-stable product, some suggestions: leatherwood, manuka, or tupelo honey (from Tasmania, New Zealand, and the Florida Panhandle, respectively); sea salt (I love the red alaea salt from Hawaii); Argentinean dulce de leche; drinking chocolate; real maple syrup; dried chiles or posole from New Mexico; palm sugar from Indonesia; spices from India or Morocco; Spanish saffron or paella rice–look for Calasparra or Bomba from Valencia; Provencal chestnut cream; Italian tomato paste or canned sardines (canned tuna from overseas is very often not from a sustainable fishery); barbecue or hot sauce; heirloom dried beans; stoneground grits…

I particularly like to buy items grown/produced by farmer co-ops but unless they’re manufactured for export or are a dried good, beware. A jar of manjar (the Chilean version of dulce de leche) I purchased from a tiny bakery wasn’t sealed properly, and was contaminated with mold when opened. Botulism or other foodborne illness is not a thoughtful gift (although I suppose it’s better to give than receive…), so make sure you’re getting professionally packaged goods.

[Photo credits: wine opener, Flickr user corktiques; honey, Laurel Miller]

On a tight budget this year? Make your own edible gifts based upon your recipient’s interests, favorite holiday spot, or ethnic heritage. Check out the below clip for an easy holiday recipe; bonus points if you know where Moravia is.

4 free street fairs to check out this weekend in New York

As the day turns to night earlier and earlier, we only have a little longer to take advantage of the beautiful fall weather. For those in the New York City area this weekend, enjoy fun in the outdoors by attending some of these street fairs.

Saturday, November 5, 2011:

American Diabetes Association’s World’s Largest Block Party

Explore over 400 exhibitors of art, crafts, collectibles, antiques, fashion, and more, from 10AM-6PM. This free event runs down Madison Avenue from 42nd-57th street, and will also feature free entertainment and over 50 cultural and corporate displays giving information and free samples.

West 4th Street Festival

From 11AM-6PM, stroll down West 4th in between Sixth Avenue and University Place to experience a great outdoor festival in Greenwich Village. Enjoy free music and entertainment while you browse stalls selling arts and crafts, food, housewares, and unique gifts.

Sunday, November 6, 2011:

Bleeker Street Festival

This free street fair will take place from 11AM-4PM along Bleeker Street in between Lafayette Street and Laguardia Place. Explore Soho by perusing the many market stalls and sampling delicious food from local vendors.

Sixth Avenue Autumn Fair

Sixth Avenue will be full of festivity from 10AM-4PM. The free fair will take place in between 34th and 42nd Streets and will feature plenty of great food and vendors as well as fall-inspired music and entertainment.

New York City’s summer street fairs: A guide and suggestions

This past Saturday, I walked out of my brother’s apartment building near Stuyvesant Park in Manhattan to discover the 2nd Avenue Street Festival underway. Block after block, 2nd Avenue was closed to traffic and perfect for discovering those items I didn’t know I had to have while brushing up on my Wolof.

New York City’s street fair scene is one of the terrific pleasures of summer in Manhattan–if you’re a pedestrian. The taxi driver who took me to Port Authority where I caught my Greyhound bus trip home made a quick turn off 6th Avenue on Sunday in order to avoid a street fair up ahead. He recounted a time of going blocks out of his way in order to get where he needed to go because he was thwarted by a street fair.

Although some street fairs seem to spring up spontaneously, there is a schedule of where to find them. I just happened upon two of them because they were where I happened to be. Each of them had their own feel. Some fairs have music, some give a nod to a particular ethnic group, and some are a mish mash of a variety of influences. Here’s a guide to what to look for if you go and a brief Wolof lesson to add to the shopping pleasure.

The two festivals I happened upon were in very different neighborhoods which added to their distinctive flavor. The Stuyvesant area is a mix of gentrification, historic houses, ethnic diversity and people who have lived in the neighborhood for years. Because 2nd Avenue is a wide street, the fair had an open feel that looked like part flea market and part carnival with a festive aura of non-fussiness. People of all ages, several with kids and people with dogs milled about, enjoying the sunshine, the goods and each other’s company.

The first item to catch my attention was the large grill filled with mozzarepas, my new favorite street food. Mozzarepas are cornbread pancakes with mozzarella cheese sandwiched between. They are grilled until the cheese melts and the pancake is crispy. Mine wasn’t cheap, $5, but I shared with a friend and the $1 lemonade a block later averaged out the price.

On the lookout for earrings, I spied a booth that mostly caught my attention because of the baskets arranged in front–and the vendors selling the wares. Turns out, the couple is from Senegal and are Wolof speakers, the language I learned in the Peace Corps. Thus came a conversation that included me asking them to reduce the price of two pairs of earrings that, frankly, were already cheap-$5 a pair. Always excited to brush up on Wolof, this interlude was one of my most favorite parts of my street fair excursion.

I also bought a T-shirt, a multi-colored artsy item that looks like it would be in an upscale boutique in a small college town. I noticed a $115. 00 original price on something else. I paid $15. The brand is Windspirit, Wind Song. . . It’s Wind something, but I can’t remember exactly.

At the fair near Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, as a reflection of the more upscale neighborhood, there was more of an art festival feel, although some of the items were similar to the one on 2nd Avenue. The African jewelry showed up several times at both locations. At this fair there were more booths that fit a fine arts to high end crafts category.

There was one booth at the Second Avenue fair that was one-of-a-kind. I only saw one booth total selling very cool wine bottle gift bags. They were lovely and had an Asian look about them, however they weren’t kitschy, but something you could give someone with good taste. A great way to dress up wine if you don’t want to spend a fortune, but want to look like you’ve put effort into a hostess gift. They were $10 for three. What a deal and I passed it by. Rats. I also passed up a chair massage. Too bad.

If you do come across any Wolof speakers, and I bet you will. Here’s a way to make a great impression.

Say “Nnga def?” Which means “How are you?”

The response to this is “Jama rek” which means “Peace only.”

If you think something is expensive say, “Defa ser.” (That’s expensive) “Wanil co tuti” (Reduce it a little.)

“Dee deet” means “No.” “Wow” means “yes”

“Mangee dem” means “I’m going.”

“Jeri jef” is “Thank you.”

Such words can get you far. Maybe not a reduction in price, but a good time. By the way, I spelled the words the way they sound to me. That’s partly how I learned Wolof.

Here are three sites I found that list festivals. My suggestion for deciding which one to hit is to see where you might be in New York City and use the street fair as a draw to a particular neighborhood. The great thing is that they go on all day, you don’t need to pay admission and there are not lines to tie up your time. Plus, they’re free and wonderful for people watching. Dogs, children, the elderly, and people with weight problems are more than welcome to join in the festivities.

I’m very grateful to Ed Yourdon who snapped these wonderful pictures last October at the street fair on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. I didn’t have my camera. Click through Yeardon’s street fair gallery and you’ll feel as if you’re at the fair.