Form-meets-function gifts for the fanatical foodie

My close circle of gift-giving pals has decided to give kitchen gadgets this year, making this a season of great joy, whoops and hollers. We are all quite fond of the small, the beautiful and the utilitarian; in short, objects you didn't know you couldn't live without. Who among us who has (and uses) a kitchen doesn't go for gadgets?

A quick survey of some chef friends on their favorite tools came up with some curious choices. One loves his Hako peeler, a simple useful piece whose weight and heft pleases him. Another would be lost without his channel knife, whether it be used for lemon peels for the perfect martini or for decorating vegetables. So much for those big-ticket appliances.

Don't get me wrong; life without my Cuisinart would be rough. I'd have missed my KitchenAid if they had picked me for that stupid Survivor show. But when my stocking is hanging by the chimney, I want to see it stuffed with cool kitchen gadgets.

Bakers are an easy bunch to put together stuff for. Find a large stoneware bowl (look for an authentic one at antique stores or get a modern look-alike at Target). Fill it with staples like the heavyweight measuring spoons and cups available at most good kitchenware shops. These are beautiful in their own right and not to be confused with those flimsy, cheesy measuring utensils you can find in any supermarket. Include a whimsical timer, like the red and white rooster timer from Crate and Barrel.

Put in a Best Flour Duster, one of the coolest things around (available at downtown's Sparrow Hawk Kitchenware store). It looks a bit like a Slinky stuck to a pair of tongs. Squeeze the tongs and fill the loose spiral baskets with flour and dust away. Old-fashioned, functional, beautiful.

The pice de rsistance in this baker's bundle could be a cookie press, a kitchen essential similar to a caulking gun: One fills the barrel with cookie dough and fires away. Most come with an assortment of icing nozzles and cookie disks. The neatest one I've seen is Italian, also at Sparrow Hawk. How could anyone resist something called Mocchina per biscotti? Think of the cookies you might get from the grateful recipient.

Hand mixers are like athletic shoes: Who knew we needed so many? Cuisinart makes several; my favorite is the nine-speed one with an automatic timer that tells me when to stop. A Swiss-made electric stick blender is available under several labels (look in Target for the best prices). I've seen some that are battery operated so you can buzz around the kitchen untethered by an electric cord.

Got kids? Eschew that microwave. Teach them some old-fashioned values with a Whirley Pop popcorn popper. It works on the stovetop and requires some viewer participation by turning the handle. A variety of catalog stores will send you one along with several pounds of popping corn. Or get an apple parer and slicer (as a present for the house; functional presents for kids fall into the same category as socks), a heavy cast-steel throwback to simpler times.

The lives of cheese lovers will be made complete by your gift of appropriate cheese knives from Williams- Sonoma. The four knives have significantly different, cheese-appropriate blades and gorgeously curved handles of African bubinga wood. Include some cheeses from Par Avion and pats from Pasta di Solazzi and you're half-way to a party.

Or use breakfast as a theme. A quality bean grinder (you can spend from $20 for a Krups on up; I've seen grinders for $60), a pound or two of good coffee beans, a juicer (manual or electric), some tasty bagels (the plane fare to New York will increase the price of this gift significantly) and a bagel guillotine complete this package. Are you still laughing about the bagel guillotine? I was, too, until a friend in California had a nasty slip of the knife. The bagel guillotine is a cheaper, gentler alternative to tendon repair. Best prices for bean grinders and bagel guillotines seem to be at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

As we boomers age, comfort and ease become more important. A company called Oxo is ahead of this curve in producing a plethora of utensils and basic kitchen implements called Good Grips. Everything from garlic presses to lobster crackers, whisks to can openers, is made with wider, graspable handles. They even make a turkey lifter (I always thought that was the strongest person nearest the oven when the turkey was done), essentially a curved, balanced grappling hook, an elegant, functional idea.

Wine aficionados can always use new corkscrews and bar gadgets. Put together a gift basket that includes a Screwpull lever opener, a Screwpull de-foiler, a vacu-pump to help preserve opened wine, and perhaps some monogrammed wine stoppers. Tossing in a bottle of Jordan cabernet wouldn't hurt, either.

A blender is always a good addition to a home bar, especially if it's the Waring 60th Anniversary edition (at today's prices -- about $140). It will take you back to your childhood, or give you a glimpse of your parents' early years when form really did follow function.

Actually, many manufacturers are taking design cues from Italy and Switzerland and making retro and quasi-industrial versions of their small appliances. Cuisinart has a cast-zinc version of their full-size processor and mini-prep. I've seen waffle makers, whistling teakettles and English toasters my grandmother would have recognized. Zyliss makes wonderful graters and choppers with Swiss precision and whimsicality.

Maybe style really is timeless. Maybe that's why our favorite tools are the most beautiful, like a friend's mustard spoon whose only purpose is to get small dribs of mustard out of the jar. Like a spatula I have from childhood: The red paint is all but gone from its wood handle; the metal is so thinned by use, its days are numbered. But in its battered shape is something beautiful. That's all I ask from a gadget.


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