February 26, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The greatest gifts

By |2018-12-11T16:41:29+01:00December 11th, 2018|"Suzanne's Taste"|
A real gift? Knowledge. Teach kids to make pizza.

t holiday time, the expression “giving up” comes with two meanings. The first suggests throwing in the towel on gift-shopping and all that goes with it. The more hopeful second meaning involves adjusting your thinking about what a gift is, or should be.

Last week, I was out among Rome shoppers and noticed bite-the-bullet scowls on several faces, especially those hauling giant bags of presents. The glumness made me think about how we behave at this time of year. What if, to the material things and homemade edibles we often give at Christmas and New Year’s, we added gifts of human help and wisdom?

For example, December is the month I traditionally make chocolate truffles. They’re easy to make, quick, and each batch contains a bountiful 60 or so. Wrap them in foil and you have a nice silver package for anyone on your gift list.

But what if, to all that silver, I added an invitation to a 15-minute how-to-make-them session? I suspect I’d get plenty of takers. If I did, my simple gift would take on a joyfully lasting dimension, since learning is a joy.

There are so many gifts I’d love to have received over the years, not the least of which are those of precious knowledge from friends and family members. Take the computer savvy of a dear man who recently traveled across town to help me in my struggle from a PC to a Mac.

Again, what a joy! His help was a gift on par with a diamond-studded Bulgari box. Better in fact, since I suspect his jewels of insight will be far more lasting.

There are so many gifts I would love to have received over the years, not the least of which are those of precious knowledge from friends and family members.

No doubt I would have lost the diamond. Or accidentally baked it into a batch of bread loaves (a true story from long ago). I probably caused a broken tooth, or a case or indigestion. I definitely can’t be trusted with diamonds.

But my newfound computer prowess (I can now cut, copy, and paste with the Mac best) won’t meet the diamond’s fate: it will stay with me always. And I can thank a spirited and savvy friend who was willing to share his know-how. Isn’t that a gift?

The computer story is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure people have plenty of skills they could give as a prresent. In fact, sharing talents may be the best and least costly gift around.

To me, it’s all about open-mindedness and a willingness to extend some imagination to what we define as a gift.

In our family, all gifts come in the form of food or drink (except for the kids). If you can’t eat it or drink it, it’s verboten. But we also invite people to give of themselves.

Cooks, of course, have a great advantage Want to give me a gift? Just hand me a nice little packet of the recipes I’ve enjoyed at your dinner table over the years. And if you’d like to teach me your technique for making the stracotto we had at your birthday dinner, all the better.

I’d be thrilled. Add a wine choice and I’ll wire you into my WhatsApp account so you can give me tips the next time I go shopping. Other gifts? How about cheese recommendations, or your favorite Scotch? Or a list of the shops where you find your favorite foods and drinks?

But unusual Christmas gift options aren’t limited to food.

I’d also cherish information about secret places, villages, cities, counties, you consider worth a detour, places that are special to mention and share. I’ll file it all away for future jaunts. When we lived in California, we’d go to an enchanted place called Two Bunch Palms, named by the tribes that uncovered the lovely hot water springs that flowed under the property and into its pools.

We told a longtime friend about our discovery, to which she said: “We’ve been going there for years.”

Years? Really? And you didn’t tell us?

Of course, it’s natural to want to hide secret delights, as if to make them yours. In the end, though, sharing is the most rewarding gift.

On Christmas Day, as a gift to my two young grandkids, I’m teaching them to make pizza, and I figure it will take only a few minutes of prepping the dough, after which will come peals of laughter, along with school stories and conversation while it rises, and not too long after that, the emergence of crispy golden slices. It’s a delightful something you’ll never find in a box under the tree.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.