Each year commences with another load of food and cooking trends. And each year, people who like to cook are given them. It's clear we're not even done complaining about garlic-cooking accoutrements or things that say "kale," so let's have another go! I discovered that this topic--what NOT to give a cook for the holidays--unleashes a real torrent of pain amongst foodies. When I Facebook-asked friends what they'd like to see on the list recently, the post went on for a dizzying thread of some 80+ responses. That's a lot of angst about bad gift-giving. So let's be helpful to the gifters out there and speak for the disgruntled cook-obsessed giftees.
Don't see your biggest gripe of the year? Add it in a comment! And gifters out there: Refer to the wretched gifts from 2011 and 2015 for more.
10. Decorative, Expensive Tea Towel
I'm not really sure what a tea towel is for, but if it's a dishcloth-like object, you can bet I'm going to use it to slop up sludge in the kitchen--even if it's emblazoned with Paula Deen's twitchy face. That means it's going to get dirty and crumpled quick, and should hence cost no more than $5. So forget those nice, fancy tea towels, like ones you'd find at the Met Store. Starry Night, meet spaghetti night. Sorry not sorry.
What to get instead: A nice-smelling dish soap and 12-pack of sponges.
9. This Thing (aka a Potato Masher)
It looks like a hanger got caught in a hamster wheel and went for little a ride. And you know how some people feel about wire hangers to begin with. Seriously, these things are useless. If you want to lightly mash your potatoes, e.g. not puree or whip them, then you could do the trick just as easily with a large fork. Or I usually just use the same spatula that I'm going to to get the mashed potatoes out of the bowl with. Less cleaning, less clutter, less pointless spending and giving = win-win-win-win.
What to get instead: A good wooden spoon, perhaps handmade from a local crafter.
8. Egg Timer
Personally, I like that my eggs come out a little differently every time I cook them. And if we're going to get really scientific about it, that's what happens every time anyway, because as a natural thing, every egg is unique in size, shape, moisture content, protein content, etc. Billie Holiday said it's not music if you sing it the same way every time. Take it to heart in the kitchen, with eggs. Live, learn, and enjoy the variety that is the spice of life.
What to get instead: A metal fish spatula--it kind of works wonders for flipping eggs and more.
7. A Random Mug
Most people I know already bemoan the motley crew of misfit mugs assembled incongruously in their cupboards like the dejected characters in The Breakfast Club. In a perfect world, you'd have fond memories about how you ended up with each mug while sipping your morning coffee. But mugs are something that you really can have too many of. And they're especially prone to not "going" together (i.e. they don't stack, have all types of weird handle shapes and sizes). I think I'm among the least choosy about dinnerware items, but when people are over and want coffee or hot cocoa and someone gets a leopard-patterned mug, someone gets a mug with someone's Bar Mitzvah memorialized on it and someone gets a mug with someone's toddler on it, even I shake my head and think, "Damn, I should be doing so much better than this."
What to get instead: A bag of coffee beans from your city's local roaster.
6. Neiman Marcus food
Yes, that is a thing. The foodiverse had a lot of fun at Neiman Marcus' expense when they were selling frozen, cooked collard greens for $66 a month ago. I had not known before that Neiman Marcus sells pre-made (and frozen and ridiculously overpriced) "gourmet" "food" but apparently, and for a long time, a lot of department stores and catalog outfits do, from Williams-Sonoma to L.L. Bean. And it's hysterical. But just. Don't. Do. It.
5. Mexican Hot Chocolate Frother
Honestly, I know way too many people who have one of these things, given to them by someone who thought they were being considerate on their way back from honeymooning in Cancun. Nobody uses them, although I suppose they would make a somewhat decent mallot for tenderizing meat with, or taking out your bad gift-getting frustrations with. (Related: Matcha frother, unless the person is really a fan.)
What to get instead: A few small, handpainted Mexican (or fill-in-the-blank-country's) sauce dishes, because most Western cooking sets don't come with them.
4. Overpriced Canisters of Powdered Sugar & Food Coloring (aka Hot Cocoa Mix)
Speaking of hot cocoa, these don't really cut it, usually, no matter how pretty the box, jar or tin is. Same goes for pretty much any "gourmet" baking or beverage mix. True story: I once had a box of this stuff explode inside my camping backpack and it coated every garment inside with chocolate dust. If you had splashed one drop of water on me I would have floated away in a Willy Wonka factory river.
What to get instead: Truffles from your favorite confectioner (or yourself).
Even the word sounds a little ominous. "Spiralizing" is more than an innocent kitchen tool. It's a lifestyle movement. It's a philosophy. It's a fad-turned-institution over the last few years, like gluten-free or SoulCycle (aka "spinning," which sounds very similar--coincidence??). I mean, I like eating raw vegetables sometimes. Sometimes, in a thin, delicate shape like you might get from a spiralizer. But you can do that already with an average vegetable peeler. And see "What to get instead" below for a more versatile slicing tool. And if you're trying to sell me on "noodles" made from raw beets or carrots or zucchini instead of pasta, then I'm just not buying it. No matter how great raw vegetables can be.
What to get instead: A Japanese mandolin, from Benriner.
2. The Internet of Kitchen Things
Sure, the idea of a smart frying pan that connects to your phone or tablet sounds refreshing. It could change the way we've been cooking for millennia! And a one-stop-shop for all your cooking needs, like the intelligent little oven-that-can might be a game-changer and all. But I'm doubtful about the novelty of these smart cooking tools lasting much longer than a few uses before you go back to using the fry pan just like you would any normal fry pan. You have to look at your phone instead of what's right in front of you--IRL--on the stove? WTF? That's like being at a party and staring at your Instagram feed the whole time. Wait...
What to get instead: A Dutch oven. It cooks just about everything, in a time-honored way on the stovetop or in the oven.
This, to a foodie, is like giving a social conservative a kinky boot. No, an aborted fetus. But you get the point--it's about as bad as it gets. I don't think Soylent is something that people might give as a gift, especially since it's been found to sicken people, but the site does encourage one to "share Soylent and help feed someone in need," which links to a typical refer-a-friend portal where your "needy" friends can get 50% off the stuff. That's because trying to convert non-psychopaths into Soylent devotees is tough, and it could take someone they might trust. Or, being literally starving, as the "feed someone in need" line suggests. But if you have friends who are literally starving, you might not want to give them gastrointestinal illnesses on top of their problems. Besides, we don't really know the long-term effects of consuming this stuff yet (although one reporter did try a month-long strict diet of it and results were definitely not good--and watch this at 11:15 for my real, professional take on the stuff). Bottom line, fake foodtech food replacement blasphemy aside: Don't be a guinea pig for someone's startup blather. That's true for many things in general.
What to get instead: Anything! Really.