I was musing online about Christmas Shopping, something that I would ostensibly enjoy were it not for my brain being the fucking way it is.
I place some significant importance on getting people something they actually like, maybe do my part to bring some Christmas wide-eye to the people in my life.
But I don’t live near any of them. In fact I’m a good 900 miles away from my family. That shouldn’t be SO much of a problem. But I just don’t get enough of a picture of their day to day lives to see between the cracks of what they say they want for Christmas into what they’d actually be delightfully surprised by.
So when I talk with them on the phone (rare as that is), or pass facebook messages back and forth I’m hypervigilant for opportunities.
After the panicked madness that was 2018 I resolved that in 2019 I was going to make gifts instead of just buying them. Give them a personal touch.
Now we’re pretty much all foodies of one form or another.
For the last couple years I’d been experimenting with making home made hot sauces and, by experimenting on my officemates I’d really dialed in an intuition of what works and what doesn’t.
So last May or June I set a shitton of peppers to a several month fermentation. I know a lot of people ferment veges for a couple/few weeks, but a byproduct of procrastination was me finding out that an extended ferment worked really well.
It was a couple weeks before Christmas before I had them all ready to go. Then I started experimenting. Jalapenos, Chilis, Habaneros, Poblanos, etc. I blended them, cooked them down then ran them through the saucer (which is like a hand-crank meat grinder that separates liquid from solid components.
So, with those four pureed pepper ingredients (saving the solid remains for another experiment) and a bunch of other ingredients including pureed fruits of different kinds, sugars and honeys, vinegars, lemon and lime juices for acidity (to keep them shelf stable) coconut milk, yadda yadda, I set out on my alchemical journey.
I take little plastic (ostensibly disposable) pipettes and ingredient bowls to make little mixtures of combinations and taste test them without drawing overmuch on my ingredient stock. BASICALLY it comes down to: A pepper, a fruit, and an acid for shelf stability (also acids balance out the sweetness.) There are other treatments I apply to some of the ingredients.
Anyway I work too damned hard for these little secrets to just hand them over in a blog post.
I came up with 4 hot sauces. One was really hot. One was really sweet, and the others were interesting, if nothing else.
Then I took the dried component from the peppers and ran them through a food processor to really just wreck them before laying them out on a cookie sheet and popping them in the oven at 200 degrees for a couple/few hours. Then back into the food processor.
I went through that a couple times then spread the result on the trays in my dehydrator and let THAT go for 18 hours or so. Back into the food processor then back into the dehydrator.
Sounds like a lot of work, and I suppose it was. But getting the size down to where I wanted them and keeping them as dry as I wanted took a lot of iterations.
But I ended up with some great chili flakes. I went to Hobby Lobby and got these little cork bottles with a little wooden spoon that fit in the side of the glass. Cute and held a bunch, probably a little shy of a cup.
Okay, 4 hot sauces, pepper flakes, and a chili lime beef jerky (because what the hell, I had my dehydrator in rotation, why not?)
I had little gift bags and little trays, decorative bottles, etc. I made these little gift bags for all of the adults, put them in the back of my truck and treked up to my sister’s place for Christmas.
At the moment of truth I brought out my little gift bags and handed them out to the adults in the room and sat back while they went through it all, read the labels on the hot sauce bottles, looked at the cute little jars.
“Huh. These jars are so cute. Where’d you get these?”
“Oh I bought the jars at Hobby Lobby.”
“Seriously those are adorable.”
They looked at the bottles of hot sauce and put them back in the bags and put them aside.
By the time the madness of Christmas morning was over I saw a couple bags overturned amidst the mess. They’d been instantly and utterly forgotten.
The rest of my couple days was mostly overshadowed by the ring of what might as well have been my tinnitus as voices seemed quiet and I just hung out in my own mind.
Okay maybe it’s me. It’s certainly at least a BIT me, right? A gift with expectation of a reward isn’t really a gift. But the reward I expect was that they would at least enjoy them. Or…shit.
Look, I don’t need people to like the things that I make. God no. That would be…I don’t even KNOW what that would be. Narcissistic? Nah, that’s not even right.
Well, I figured I’d test it out. I’d made a lot more than I needed to give away as Christmas presents.
So I did what I do. I took them to bars and handed them to friends.
First it was: “Holy shit you MADE this?” almost uniformly.
Then: “Hold on, let’s get some chips and try them.”
Then, after 15 minutes of people tasting this with that and going through combinations: “Yeah I don’t like these, but THIS one I love” discussions of what people liked about which one, questions about how I made them all.
Yeah. See, it was like when I brought my experiments in to the office. Hell, one day I brought I think 14 combinations I was testing out, adding the caveat that “I’m not sure if these are any good. But these are the ones that held together enough for me to bring them in and see if anyone liked them.”
Months later I went in to one of my bars, after some time away and the bartender said “DUDE THERE YOU ARE! We need to know what the hell is in that hot sauce you brought us. We’ve been putting that shit on everything!” With a nod and a wink to the Frank’s commercials.
“Dude, which one? That was months ago. I might not have any idea what was in there.”
The other bartender went into the kitchen and came out with the big, almost entirely empty mason jar of brown sludge that was one of my attempts.
“Man, I don’t know what to tell you. I have NO idea what that one was. Okay give me the bottle, a glass of ice water and a couple drink stirs.” I sat there taking a little dab at a time on my tongue, of course it was one of the hot ones (Confession: I’m a bit of a scoville bitch.) I tried to put it together but I had no damned idea. It was nice and smokey, a little fruity and just smacked you like a fucking dominatrix on a rough night.
“I don’t know what to say guys. I’m just not sure. I’ll tell you what I generally do and maybe we can put it together.” and I went through the process I described above, albeit in more detail.
I also make rice wine. It’s the one brewing thing that I’m going to keep doing. It’s as easy to make as it is to drink.
When I make a batch, I put a mason jar in my bag along with a bunch of those little shot glasses I buy at Walmart that look like little red solo cups. They’re like a buck eighty for ten. Then when I’m at the bar I’ll say “psst…” to the regular suspects and flash them the jar.
“Ooh, is that the rice wine?” and we drink some.
And if I end up talking with a bunch of people at the next table over I’ll offer them some. Sometimes they accept, sometimes they don’t. Usually they like it, rarely they don’t. It’s all good. Rarely they’ll say
“Yo can I buy a bottle of this?”
Now, I’d be inclined to doubt their sincerity if it weren’t for the absolute preponderance of positive results I get from people. If I didn’t show up weeks later and people didn’t introduce me as “Oh this is the guy I was telling you about, that makes that rice wine! OMG it’s so good.”
I don’t need people to fucking gush over me. I don’t believe it when they do.
But SOMEthing. Maybe I’m reading this whole thing wrong somehow.
But the data just lines up in a very particular way.
It quickly becomes a matter of casting pearls before swine.
This year I started by asking everyone for their amazon wish list. But they’re even recalcitrant about that. My sister sent me hers. It’s full of vacuum cleaners and other assorted stuff.
I love it when people get me stuff off my wish list. There’s a common complaint that it lacks thoughtfulness. But I use my amazon wish list for myself. So there’s not really a more pure indication of what I want than…well…things I actually want.
There are a couple people I have ideas for. But usually if I think of something that someone needs I just send it to them.
I know what I’m going to get my niece and a nephew or two.
But the rest of them? Yeah they’re getting amazon gift cards.
I’ll unlearn this lesson next year I know, after I’ve spent a few months at the forge and in the shop, dialing in my skill set.