It’s always wonderful to be invited out. Whether it is for a Shabbos meal, a surprise party, or a weekend away, all of the experts including Emily Post, Dear Abby and, of course, your very own mother would recommend that you not show up empty-handed. While knowing your hosts’ likes and dislikes, possible allergies and other personal preferences can definitely be helpful when it comes to buying the perfect gift, I am hoping that this list of ideas, culled from my family and friends, both real and virtual, will inspire ideas that will be warmly received and, dare I say it, even loved, by the recipients.
Ironically, one of the first things that I found when I rallied the troops for this article was that there were certain items some people claimed were “totally awesome,” while others advised “don’t ever bring this.” The two most often purchased hostess gifts, wine and flowers, topped those lists, further illustrating that a gift can be a home run with some, while striking out with others.
Let’s start with that bottle of wine, shall we? Obviously, if you know someone doesn’t drink alcohol, you are going to want to go in a different direction, but otherwise wine can make a lovely gift, particularly when you know what kind of wines your host enjoys. Experimenting with things that are new and different can sometimes yield very positive results, but when in doubt, stick with something that toes the middle of the road line – not too dry and not too sweet. Over the years we have had guests bring some unique “spirited” gifts including homemade chocolate liqueur, a wine engraved with a personalized message and just this past Shabbos, our dinner guests showed up with something called Righteous Seven, a craft liqueur featuring all of the shivas haminim, which was so intriguing we all had to give it a try. (Just FYI, Righteous Seven is only kosher when bearing an OU.)
As for flowers, I am a firm believer that you can never have too many in your house, so the more the merrier. If you are showing up with uncut flowers, try not to arrive five minutes before candle lighting so that your host or hostess has time to find the right vase and arrange them. Bringing flowers in a vase so that no arranging is needed is truly lovely, while potted orchids are a gift that keeps on giving and can be readily found at reasonable prices in Costco and many supermarkets.
It goes without saying that candy or chocolate are bad ideas for anyone on a strict diet, but for all others, something sweet is typically well received. Artisan popcorn has become a hit as of late, though a friend reported that one of the best gifts she ever got was a tall glass jar filled with homemade caramel popcorn. Gourmet babkas are also having their moment in the sun and honestly, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t love to get a fresh, crumb laden loaf, although if you know anyone who fits that description, please have them direct all their babka gifts to my house, where I promise to give them the love and attention that they so rightfully deserve.
Which brings me to homemade gifts. If you have a specialty, be it really spectacular challah, fabulous chocolate chip cookies or a killer potato kugel that your host loves or that gets rave reviews from every single person who tastes it, consider bringing some along with you. Wanna go the extra mile? Augment your gift by putting your challah on a beautiful tray, popping your cookies into a jar with an airtight seal to keep them fresh for days or bake your kugel in a ceramic dish for your recipient to keep – I have no doubt your efforts will be very warmly welcomed (and devoured).
Other great gift ideas? Extra netilas yadayim towels, picture frames, serving pieces and salad tongs never get lost and oven to table pieces are welcome additions to every kitchen. We are still enjoying beautiful washing cups and handmade havdalla candles given to us years ago by thoughtful visitors, as well as a small Lucite dish with a cover filled with homemade biscotti. Not only were the baked goods thoroughly enjoyed, but we leave breakfast goodies on the counter in that dish when we have sleepover guests since they invariably wake up before I do on Shabbos morning. You can also consider a coffee cake or cheesecake for breakfast or, if your hosts often put up guests for neighbors, consider pretty tea light holders for those extra candle-lighters.
The personal touch is always appreciated. I heard from one friend that the most thoughtful hostess gift she ever received was a monogrammed cookie jar that matched her kitchen décor perfectly and, of course, was filled with cookies, while another had a guest who brought her a brand new copy of her favorite cookbook after learning that her original was falling apart. By the way books, especially cookbooks, are another perennial favorite, even better when they come with a gift receipt in case your giftee already has a copy of the volume you picked up.
And then there are some gifts that don’t fall into any category, like making a contribution to their favorite tzedakah, or the thick plush throw that a friend brought me just as the weather was starting to turn cold. If you ever have to buy numerous gifts to thank the many people who are putting up your nearest and dearest, I will share my best-ever hostess gift idea with you – manicure gift certificates from a nearby nail salon, a present that got rave reviews from all of my neighbors.
Let’s face it, no matter how hard you try, sometimes a gift just misses the mark, and I confess this has happened to me more than once. One time we brought our close friends a beautiful platter of lox pinwheels stuffed with cream cheese only to remember a family salmon allergy a few days later. (Thankfully we made up for that faux pas next time around by bringing them a Costco-sized tub of bubble gum, a gift that they enjoyed for months.) I have had friends tell me that they don’t care for gifts that are intended to be hung on their walls, fragranced gifts with strong scents, or large serving bowls or platters that are difficult to store. But I think the two gifts that earned their spot in the gift giving hall of fame were the super delicate glass flowers that broke and drew blood as they were being placed gently in a vase and a massive Play Doh set for the family’s small children brought by a well meaning individual who showed up just 10 minutes before Shabbos. Both were very thoughtful purchases that just didn’t work out exactly as intended, though appreciated for the spirit in which they were given.
In the end, there are no hard and fast rules about what will and won’t hit pay dirt. Try to put yourself in your recipient’s shoes and if you don’t know them, see if you can locate a mutual acquaintance who may have a better idea of what they might like. And if not? No worries – smile, do your best and remember that the best present of all is the gift of your presence.