(©istockphoto/Giancarlo Polacchini)

(©istockphoto/Giancarlo Polacchini)

“I don’t know whether you like flowers, sir,” the count said, “but I took the liberty of just bringing these roses.”

“Here, give them to me.” Brett took them. “Get me some water in this, Jake.” I filled the big earthenware jug with water in the kitchen, and Brett put the roses in it, and placed them in the centre of the dining-room table.
– from “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway.

Today, the energetic Mrs. E. and I will pack the progeny into the car and venture to the wilds of Southern Maryland to visit a friend. The country house visit requires, as most visits do, a suitable gift. It wasn’t always this way. At one point, people thought it gauche to bring a gift. That has changed. And it is almost expected that a guest arrive with something in hand. Particularly when your friend never crosses your threshold without a picnic hamper of delicacies. Even if she is only staying for a quick drink.

I like the present-giving. As long as it doesn’t go too far. That means bringing something small and useful. Our friend is a very good cook and part Italian. Her parents owned a vineyard at one time (maybe they still do…) She qualifies as a “foodie.” Which makes my job easy.

Yesterday, I visited my local butcher (note: Monday isn’t the best day to visit the butcher. Weekends empty the cases.) Homemade Pancetta, Proscuitto and Boar sausage all made the cut. A loaf of crusty bread, several of our incredibly delicious, locally grown Hanover tomatoes and three bottles of good Italian red did, too.

We are not always as extravagant. During my early years as a college graduate, I was known for bringing three bottles of inexpensive Champagne to most events. Small, foreign soaps have accompanied me to small townhouses. Tins of real Virginia peanuts are always a big hit. A bottle of truffle oil is too. My local antiques market has a booth with lots of embroidered linens. I can almost always find an appropriate monogram on a set of cocktail napkins or a pillow case. A bottle of good bourbon or single malt whiskey is a safe bet, as is wine.

As a kid overseas, I once had a General give me a Big Mac that had been flown in “Space-A” with some other cargo. First burger I’d had in three years. Heaven. And just about as thoughtful as could be.

Which leads me to this: “it’s the thought that counts.” Think about your hostess and find something she’d love. If you don’t know her, send a thank you gift with a handwritten note the day after you leave. Even if it’s just a snapshot in the envelope, it’s sure to be a hit.

What are your never-fail hostess gifts? Or what gift have you been given that stands out as truly memorable (in a good way)?

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11 Responses to The Hostess Gift

  1. Fairfax says:

    I love giving books that reflect the host/hostess’s interests. I gave my host on the eastern shore a book about Paris Antiquaires and then I just sent one to him on housekeeping tips from the National Trust.

    Where in Southern MD? I went to St. Mary’s… for the sailing. In hindsight, not the best reason to choose a school!

  2. Claire says:

    Most of our friends don’t do hostess gifts, but they bring their own alcohol or contribute food. Every once in a while, I’ll receive something but it’s rare. We always bring something, even if it’s just flowers, but it’s usually a bottle of wine. Keep in mind that these people are not staying with us or vice versa, they are friends that live a few miles away….

  3. Lecaro says:

    I always like to bring a good bottle of olive oil along with an interesting vinegar. It provides the hosts with the basics for a different vinaigrette, whether they choose to use them then or later.

  4. Reggie says:

    I subscribe to the dictum never to bring cut flowers with that require the host(ess) to attend to them right then and there, and if I must bring something live I’ll choose a potted plant that doesn’t require attention — otherwise send ahead of time. Far preferable, though, to bring something with that is tasty to eat or drink (a bit of a splurge), or a nice soap or candle. I refrain from bringing anything that isn’t consumable or easily passed along (such as a book) since most people I know don’t really want more things, and are persnickety when it comes to choosing what to add to what they already have. End of day, a nice thoughtful gift of food or drink is always welcome.

  5. pvedesign says:

    Hostess gifts are always such fun to personalize. For Summer, I love the aluminum watering can found at our local hardware store and SunFlowers or the Aluminum Bucket or Basket filled with goodies, Wine, Fresh Produce and herbs.
    I always love to bring things wrapped for surprise. A gift is all about the thought.
    I try to stock up on containers and items and keep those handy. Nothing worse than being a lazy and ungrateful guest, right! We always bring wine too (in the bottle!)

  6. Flowers are a terrible arrival gift, because one’s hostess is forced to use them. Better to wait until after the party, when you have had a chance to check out the decor and send something color-complementary. Or you could send white flowers beforehand; those are safe. Ditto wine; bring a bottle but make it perfectly clear that it’s for the host/hostess on their off-hours, ie that you didn’t bring it for dinner. Alternatively I like to bring a bottle of an interesting liquor to add to the drinks tray, something you enjoy and think your host/hostess might like … again when you are not around. Recently for a weekend with friends I brought a scented candle. For friends with children, I’ve opted out of adult gifts entirely and instead brought a children’s book, which seems to surprise and please everyone.

  7. Columnist says:

    I agree that bringing something has become a little out of hand, and certainly for dinner parties we have almost but dispensed with the idea, and I much prefer it when people don’t bring anything. But I think the thank you letter is absolutely something you should never ever forget, and sadly it is rapidly going out of fashion. I don’t even mind a thank you in some other form of communication, (and by that I mean a telephone call, if you know each other well enough, or an email, or even a witty sms). It just helps as a host to know that your guests have enjoyed themselves, and I think the thought that goes into saying/writing that is far more rewarding, (for me anyway). Sometimes I think taking something is just a cop out for saying thank you after the event; I want to know how much they enjoyed the dinner, the wine, the company, the gorgeous house etc. And the amusingly, cleverly said, the better. And the more stylish, surely?

  8. Oh, the gift I was given! I forget to add that. I have had several lovely gifts over the years. One year a friend who was staying with us for a couple weeks arrived from England with six place settings of Crème de Riz creamware by Gien crammed into his luggage (we had no decent plates) plus a large serving bowl. And one very cold evening a couple of winters ago a neighbor brought us a lovely late 19th-century wool-and-velvet lap robe she found at a flea market (she’s got a good eye, that one). Last fall and winter when the spouse and I went to anybody’s house we brought homemade herb-infused vodka packed in recycled Lorina lemonade bottles and a loaf of homemade rye bread.

  9. I couldn’t agree more about flowers… while it seems like the perfect gift, you are actually placing the hostess in an uncomfortable situation. She must accept them, cut stems under water and place them in a vase immediately. Most likely she’s already using most of her vases for the occasion and someone has to get up to “that cabinet up there’ to locate another suitable vase. And it is rarely the appropriate bouquet for the home.

    I prefer to give someone gifts they will use in their own private time. Something personal and like candles or imported soaps…something I picked up on a trip for occasions like these. Better yet, if they are a very good friend yo typically know something they adore and can bring that item for them.

    And always follow up with a handwritten thank you. One of the best gifts of all.

  10. Goodness! I wish I had checked in before we went to visit! Aesthete, you’ve got some very thoughtful friends, and bringing a book for the children and a bottle for the adults is a very good suggestion! Mrs. PvE, stocking up on containers is a great idea! I never have much of anything save a length of recycled ribbon and a number of children’s themed gift bags hanging about. Ms. Durbin’s idea of picking up interesting souvenirs on travels is a very good one, too. Columnist, you will be pleased to learn that the thank you was written a hour after we returned home and posted this morning. Reggie, the boar salami was a bigggg hit. Lecaro, great suggestion — I go through olive oil like it’s beer and can always use a new vinegar. Claire, I just feel funny arriving empty handed — and always send a thank you of some sort if I do.

    How is this for thoughtful? We left with a gift of homegrown cucumbers and had cucumber sandwiches for lunch that day. Which, after the half bottle of whiskey the night before, let me feel smugly healthful.

    Fairfax, turns out it was in Mechanicsville not far from Pax River and the Navy Air base. Amish country! The children managed to miss each horse and buggy as we passed it. (I went to a regatta party or two at St. Mary’s back in the early 90′s… there are worse reasons for choosing a school!)

  11. breathing says:

    I’ve noticed that people love to receive gifts from their favorite shops. Some recent purchases from beloved New York shops include; tea and chocolate from MarieBelle, a set of napkins from Calypso, assorted treats from Dean and Deluca, and a candle from Charlotte Moss. Although I agree that live flowers can be difficult for the host/hostess to manage, I’m always delighted to receive them!
    I recently gave an antique croquet set to my host and dear friend, which I purchased from one of his favorite shops. (there is a photo on my blog, May 31st post, if you care to see.)

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