Rick Nichols' Food Gifts
The art of the hot dog; prizewinning caramel-y cheese; a candy cornucopia; salt-of-the-Virginia-earth ham; and a knife that unites.
Dogs here! Get 'em hot! Buy a set of four gallery-quality 11-by-4-inch giclee prints of hot dogs o' the world (the Philly combo, with fish cake; Chicago Dog; Maine Red Snapper; Perro Caliente; and a dozen others). By edgy Philly illustrator (and recovering chef) Hawk Krall, who has sketched America's hot dog habit as faithfully - if more free-spiritedly - as Audubon did our feathered friends. He has a new Philly Cheese Steak print, too, just in time for the holidays! (Set of four, $100; www.hawkkrall.net/prints)
This cheese stands alone. I love this caramel-y Cabot cow's-milk cheddar so much I bought a quarter of a wheel once and gave it away as gifts. It's wrapped in a gauzy bandage so the cheese can breathe earthy cave air. Thus the name: Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. It ages up to 14 months in the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont. There's still a sharp edge, but it tends to be creamier than English cheddars, with nutty, buttery notes that pair magically with pale ales. (At Whole Foods, cheese shops, and mail order from Di Bruno Bros., $21.99 a pound, at 1-888-322-4337, or www.dibruno.
A fine paring. Giving a knife as a gift raises certain issues. One is the superstition that it might sever a relationship. There's a simple antidote, though: The jinx is off if you give the giver a token sum. A few pennies will do; but I paid my wife 25 cents when she gave me this simple knife for my birthday. She'd remembered how much I loved its palm-filling walnut handle (with brass rivets) and the abidingly maneuverable, stubby 3-inch blade when I used it in the kitchen of a house we rented last summer. I've employed it for all manner of peeling and paring since, the feel of it solid and comforting in my hand. The relationship? It's our 25th anniversary next week. (Chicago Cutlery paring knife with walnut handle, model C-100S, $10.95, www.knifecountryusa.com)
The ham cure. For a brief, shining moment you could actually get a thin-shaved, Southern "country ham plate" at West Philadelphia's Marigold Kitchen. The menu has moved on. But if you still have a hankering for these salty wonders of the American smokehouse - aged Wigwam-brand salt-and-brown-sugar-cured, hickory-smoked country ham, or, say, Surryano Ham - they're available by mail order. The Edwards family, which presides over these meticulous hams, also offers a sampler pack with 12 ounces of cooked ham slices, 12 ounces of bacon, and 2 pounds of sausage links - to go with your morning eggs, biscuits, and redeye gravy. (Smokehouse sampler, $34.95, 1-800-222-4267 or www.virginiatraditions.com)
Hometown chocolates. Tired of hearing Mom (Dad, Aunt Terry) bemoan the glory days of Philadelphia chocolate-
making? Have them chew on this. The Pennsylvania General Store has put together a sampler from the last of the region's Mohicans - Zitner's buttercreams, peanut butter smoothies from Asher's, Lore's chocolate-covered, house-made marshmallows. There are newbies, too: Neuchatel's truffles, and Eclat's sea-salt caramels. ($22, at Pennsylvania General Store, Reading Terminal Market, 215-592-9772; Manayunk warehouse, 800-545-4891; mail order, www.pageneralstore.com)