Virtual shopping has its, well, virtues. For one thing, browsing Websites is a great way to procrastinate. You can source products you might have had no idea otherwise even existed -- vanilla-scented aromatherapy slippers, anyone (www.CasualLivingUSA.com)? And for those transplants whose relatives have the bad luck not to have moved down with them to live in the subtropical vicinity, it's ideal for sending holiday gifts that will warm the heart, if not the rest of the frostbitten body.
The downside for me is that by the time I get around to making a decision and ordering a certain gourmet-minded present, such as the apron that reads "real men fry turkeys" (www.CasualLivingUSA.com) for my brother-in-law Bill -- who dunks just such a bird in hot oil to fabulous effect -- something happens to make me want to expose my computer to a virus that's not of the food-borne illness variety. Either I can't find that person's address, or I forgot to bring my credit card up to my office, or AOL is having a bad hair day and my connection is lost as easily as a loose bobby pin right before all the secure information can be properly transmitted. That's not only the point where I quit, employing classic sailor-speak so violently that even my cats cover their ears in horror; it's also the moment where I'm actually relieved to go back to writing about yet another hamburger that hasn't been delivered medium-rare as requested.
Bottom line is, however, that I'm left with all these terrifically quirky, culinary-oriented goods that really deserve to be given to someone of a like mind as a token of affection. In fact, chances are I've been ripping pages out of catalogs for months and collecting the possibilities in autumn leaflike piles that tempt my kids to jump in them. Still, at the end of a long day of eating, there's no way I'm going to repeat, ad nauseam, these exercises in absolute frustration. So please, DSL subscribers in particular, be my guests: Take advantage of my research to make your Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa shopping that much more convenient. No thanks necessary -- unless, of course, you're headed to Zingerman's, the Michigan delicatessen and artisanal food company (www.zingermans.com). I've always wanted to have a three-loaf membership to "the bread club." Don't know what I mean? You'll have to check it out -- and yes, that was a hint hint, wink wink.
For instance, there's Pisces Soap (www.piscessoap.com), a whimsical, gastronomical take on bath soaps. Twentysomething soap-maker Kerith Henderson founded her company "to stave off the boredom of bathing," she says. "When you think how often you wash, soak, and scrub in a lifetime, you better have some fun with one of our longest-term daily chores." Which is why this "underground Martha Stewart" makes soaps that look and smell like pickles, brownies, and bagels with cream cheese. It's almost a good thing I haven't gotten around to ordering any, because Henderson just unveiled her Christmas line: "Cookies for Santa," "Grandma's Eggnog," and even a Yule log. With these nearly edible cleansing agents, washing your mouth out with soap takes on a whole new meaning.
Along with examining just what it means to be dirty, wine-tasting is being redefined by Canadian entrepreneur Dave Coutts. He invented the WineLover's Challenge (www.wineloverschallenge.com) in order to become "a more skillful wine taster" himself. The trivia game is designed so that "any question or its multiple-choice answers may spark spontaneous conversations ... especially those involving quotes from songs, books, or movies. Enjoying the wine and having a good time with friends is the game's objective. Although players keep score, it is not so much competitive as a sociable group activity game," Coutts notes. Ditto Winerd (www.uncommongoods.com), a board game that requires players to pass blind taste tests using three bottles of similar vintages. Naturally, wine-tasting isn't complete without some extras, namely the "Mandarin Court Wine Bottle Covers" (www.eziba.com). Made in Hangzhou and Beijing, these costumes, in both male and female versions, are so authentic you might be tempted to dress a small dog or cat in them for next Halloween. And as a perfect accessory, you can carry the silk brocade handbag that is shaped like a Chinese take-out box container (www.uncommongoods.com). In red or black, this pint-size beauty is the "it" gift for the person in your life whose sole talent lies in ordering in.
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More wearable art comes in the form of both a beer mug twill button-down and the Hawaiian-style martini-print shirts. In general, I prefer the literal over the figurative, for which the bikini-clad twelve-ounce pilsner glasses, shaped like a female torso, are divine. (All available at www.CasualLivingUSA.com) For great taste that's less filling, there is the "sassy shot glass set" inscribed with such witticisms as "because cramps don't go away by themselves" and "sometimes yoga just isn't enough" (www.uncommongoods.com).
Even more useful is the Camelbak Skeeter Backpack (www.discovery.com). Insulated in order to keep liquids at their proper cool temperatures, this 35-ounce "backpack," complete with hoselike attachment that allows one to drink without pause, is also covered with reflective fabric to rebound headlights. Obviously designed for walkers and runners, I can see how it would also come in discreetly handy for decanting a bottle of something white and cold to bring to a place -- like, say, a public pool -- where alcoholic beverages aren't exactly encouraged.
Speaking of wine (and aren't I always?), the Sangria pen (www.levenger.com) might sound pretty tempting. And it is -- for writing checks, making grocery lists, and jotting notes. But keep in mind that it's only named after the punch because it comes from Spain and its casing comes in vivid colors. Pretty weak, if you ask me. Not that I ever had a desire to drink ink. But it could at least be accompanied by a bottle of Rioja.
And simply because some of us will overindulge, and the rest of us will have to follow the number-one rule of nature -- what goes in must come out -- there's the gift nobody can resist. Hailing from the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum (www.mustardmuseum.com), Poupon U, affectionately known as America's Mustard College, has launched the "royal flush." That's right, an official Poupon U toilet seat. The yellow-white-and-black color scheme of the logo might not work in every bathroom. But for those who have bumblebee décor schemes, it's a natural. And on the plus side, the "royal flush" is completely functional, comes with appropriate hardware, and is one size fits all.