Odd food items have suddenly appeared in workplace snack rooms. Wedges of waxy cheese, tubes of hard salami, and pears that look shellacked have replaced the ubiquitous half-eaten birthday cake.
‘Tis the season of the holiday food basket.
Perhaps research on the anthropology of ritual food gifts can explain the thinking behind clustering processed cheese, fatty sausage, and Scottish shortbread in a basket and sending it as a holiday present. This research should include a study as to why the foods are put inside their own boxes and then enclosed in a cellophane bubble big enough to house a spaceship. I ask you, do the people who package the gifts in such an eco-unfriendly fashion think that the recipient will use up enough calories unpacking them to justify consuming such fattening foods? Or is there something about our contemporary cuisine that explains why someone would eat a slice of sausage on a piece of shortbread?
The experience of many recipients of these culinary offerings is to pass them on, as quickly as possible. There's no regret in this regift - it's a full contact sport. People in one office I know race to see how fast they can pass these food baskets on to delivery and service people with whom they work. Those who fail to regift in-house end up lugging the packages home and hoping that their kids' teachers and local letter carrier will happily accept. As a last resort, there is always a Christmas party where the rewrapped food packages can be left discreetly, without a note, of course.
The idea of sharing food, especially during celebratory events and holidays, is probably as old as the first cave man potluck supper. Friends and relatives traditionally bring food to help a new mother or a family dealing with sickness or death, and communal meals are effective ways to weld together neighbors or co-workers. But the typical holiday food gift basket usually does not convey the same message of warmth, support and caring for a few reasons:
1) The recipients are rarely in need of food and the food baskets are rarely, if ever, delivered to those who are, such as people in shelters or those who visit soup kitchens.
2) The foods are useful if one is struggling to stay alive on the side of a mountain after a plane crash or after a natural disaster that destroys the electrical infrastructure, and thus refrigeration. The shelf life of the items in the basket (with the exception of fruit) may be longer than the lifespan of the recipient. Sadly, since the senders of these gifts do not think of them as disaster relief, they are rarely used for this purpose.
3) People who might actually benefit from receiving a holiday food basket (someone recovering from surgery or struggling to cope with newborn twins) will find it difficult or even impossible to obtain any essential nutrients from these foods, much less turn them into meals. But they may be useful to serve to visitors, I suppose.
4) Generally speaking, many of the gift food baskets contain the same categories of food items. After a while, even chocolate pretzels (my favorite) lose their appeal.
Yet you shouldn't give up on giving food as gifts at holiday time. Many of us treasure the homemade jams, gingerbread, or jars of homemade granola some of our friends and families give. As for the rest of us, who have neither the time nor capability to make our own food gifts, companies should make available healthy, delicious foods that we can give our business colleagues or the relative who has everything.
There are some companies that do put together healthy appealing foods such as the Fruit-of-the-Month Club. Others fill baskets with an assortment of whole-grain bread mixes with natural preserves or pure maple syrup. My own wish list would include a monthly delivery of soup; there would be cold-weather soups that contain ingredients I rarely use in cooking, such as kale or beans, and warm weather soups that I would like to try, like melon gazpacho or cold blueberry. I have a friend who is a vegan and always looking for foods that do not contain eggs or dairy products. She would be ecstatic if she received main courses and desserts that were more interesting than her own creations. What about a gift basket with exercise equipment such as stretchy cords and light weights that can be used at home along with a DVD on how to use them? New moms who cannot get out to a gym and who you know are desperate to start exercising again would welcome such a basket (as long as the recipient understood that the giver was not calling them fat).
Maybe, instead of sending the food basket, the sender makes a contribution to a facility that feeds the homeless. That would be the best gift of all, wouldn't it?