Stuff we dig: The not-quite-normal holiday gift guide

| 10 Nov 2014 | 01:53

At first we scoffed at the notion of a gift guide. The last thing we wanted to do was encourage consumerism. There’s more than enough of that going on without our joining the din.

But then we stopped being holier than thou long enough to realize that we actually do have some recommendations. Over the past three years, we’ve been scurrying about in pursuit of stories like a squirrel gathering nuts and well, we’ve come across some nuts worth sharing.

So this is our gift guide. We’re not telling you to go out and buy buy buy, we’re just letting you in on a few things that we know we like. We hope this will help you spend your hard earned cash on something worthwhile, instead of at a last-minute frenzy at Woodbury Commons (hey, we’ve all been there).

1. Solar cooker

If this was a one-item list, the solar cooker would be it. It harnesses the energy showered down by the sun to cook just about anything – roasted veggies, lamb stew, baked potatoes, bread, a pot of tea, a turkey. We don’t understand why everyone doesn’t have one.

In our house, we’ve been using the Hot Pot solar cooker ($135) for the past two years. Here’s how ours works: in the morning, cut up whatever’s ready from our garden, usually a medley of some combination of corn, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, perhaps mixed with rice or quinoia. Put it all in the pot and place the cooker outside in the sun. Rotate the cooker once or twice over the course of the day to follow the sun. Our food slow-cooks while we’re outside working or playing. When we’re ready to eat, we grab the pot on our way in and our hot meal is ready. Sometimes we eat our “summer stew” right out of the pot, leaving exactly one pot to be washed after dinner.

There are a great variety of cookers out there, starting with the $29 CooKit. We were amazed that the CooKit, which is nothing more than a piece of silver cardboard and a plastic bag into which you put your own pot, cooked eggplant just as well as our Hot Pot. Our concern was that the cardboard would get beat up pretty quickly, especially if it rained. Solar Cookers International reports that with careful use and storage, it can last up to two years.

Almost all of the models work just fine, but it’s worth digging a little to find the one that best meets your needs (do you bake? camp?). We love our Hot Pot so much we now have two. The downside is that since it was designed for use in the tropics, it only really works during the summer. There are other cookers that allow you to cook a chicken in three feet of snow. gives an honest assessment of the pros and cons of each, plus links for building your own solar cooker for as little as $5.

2. Compost toilet

I hope we don’t get too much crap for this one. When we published a photo of a guy on a compost toilet on the cover in 2012, people were so grossed out they turned livid, and part of me – the part that likes not being yelled at – regretted having done it. But the idea that our modern plumbing system is insanely wasteful stuck with me. One flush uses as much as five gallons of potable water. That’s an office cooler.

After writing that infamous story, I did nothing (other than feel guilty every time I flushed). When that got old I finally gathered the materials and asked husband Joe to make us our own compost toilet. I spent $25, but only because I splurged on a bamboo toilet seat.

The toilet originally occupied an outbuilding far afield, intended to be used at parties and by friends camping out. But over time it moved closer and closer to our house, until it took up residence in a shed/greenhouse steps from our door, where I now use it every morning in lieu of the indoor loo. I keep toilet paper and a bin of sawdust next to the toilet. After doing my business, I scoop sawdust on top. Guests who use our outdoor water closet invariably exclaim at its un-grossness.

Every 10 days or so when the five-gallon bucket gets full, I dump its contents into my compost and toss some leaves or grass clippings or newspaper on top. After sitting for a year, the compost is ready to use on the garden. Washing the empty buckets out with a hose does require a bit of water, but it’s negligible in comparison to what a flush toilet uses.

This may seem like a peculiar gift, but if you’re shopping for a hippie, or anyone who wants to lighten her footprint, this will set them up to take a big step in the right direction. And they’ll think of you every day!

Bonus: the next time a hurricane hits and we lose water, we’ll have one less thing to worry about.

Plans to make your own at Buy one readymade for $299 at the same site, or $234 if you pick it up in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Also available on Etsy from JTHomesteader for $149.

3. Bee’s wrap

You’ve switched to glass food storage vessels and cloth napkins, and you actually remember to bring cloth bags into the grocery store. You’re the greenest! But there’s a sticking point that’s harder than most to find a way around, and that’s Saran wrap. How can you keep leftovers fresh without it?

Welcome to the world, Bee’s Wrap. Invented by a stay-at-homestead mom in Vermont, Bee’s Wrap is made with organic cotton muslin, tree resin, and naturally antibacterial beeswax and jojoba oil. Instead of the static cling that keeps plastic wrap in place, Bee’s Wrap gains sticking power from the warmth of your hands. Use it to wrap bread, cheese, vegetables, and cover a bowl – again and again and again. Between uses, rinse it in cool water with a mild dish soap, air dry, fold and store in that drawer that used to hold your Saran wrap, or in a basket on your countertop. (It’s nice to look at, too.) It’s not recommended for use with meat since it can’t be washed in hot water.

Our Bee’s Wrap is three months old, we use it a lot and it’s as good as new.

Assorted 3-pack: 1 small (7”x8”), 1 medium (10”x11”), 1 large (13”x14”): $18; bread wrap (17”x23”): $15; set of 3 small: $16; set of 3 medium: $18; set of 3 large: $19

4. Cheese & bread boards

We’ve got a lot of cutting boards in our house, but there’s only one we pull out as a serving platter when we have guests: our thick slabbed black walnut cutting board made by New York Heartwoods. We even occasionally wipe it down with wood wax. It is the only non-living thing in our house that gets that level of attention.

Now you will actually be able to find these elusive cheese and bread boards, at least for a couple months. They will be on sale at the Conscious Fork pop-up store through December 31. The boards are handmade from black walnut, black cherry and ambrosia maple milled in Warwick from distressed and downed local trees. They are finished with several coats of walnut oil and a wood wax made from walnut oil, local beeswax and lemon oil.

For those of you who use shmancy electronics, New York Heartwoods is also crafting tablet/iPad stands out of local salvaged antique hemlock ($48) and black walnut or black cherry milled from distressed and downed local trees and finished with tung oil ($65).

Cheese and bread boards: $39 to $72; wood wax, $12 a jar. Conscious Fork pop-up store, 28 Railroad Ave., Warwick NY

5. Himalayan salt lamp

All of a sudden we’ve been hearing about and seeing Himalayan salt lamps all over the place. We spied them in the window of the Bodhi Tree in Sugar Loaf and rushed in to interrogate the owner.

They look cool, but do they work?

“We’ve got one in every room of the house,” Brad Middleton answered. He referred me to his wife and co-owner, Veronica Bero.

“Salt lamps are the one thing we have that’s more science than metaphysical-based,” Bero said. Crystal attracts water, which is why you put rice in your salt shaker to keep it dry. When the salt crystal absorbs water from the air, it causes a chemical reaction that releases negative ions. Being heavier than the allergens and electro-magnetic clutter in the air, negative ions weigh down all of that secondary stuff, clearing the air, she explained. “It’s kind of like when you step outside after a big thunderstorm or you’re standing right in front of a waterfall, and the air just feels better. That’s because the engative ions are thick at that time,” she said.

Middleton only had a few lamps left in the store, with an order of 70 coming in shortly, but he unplugged one to loan me. I placed it on the bookshelf that holds my toddler daughter’s book collection and plugged it in just in time for her birthday party. She brought her guests over and pointed to it. It was clearly something special.

There it has stayed, warmly glowing 24/7. I find it soothing; it reminds me of the lava lamp I had in my room as a teenager. Does it work, though, in the many ways it is said to?

Pascal’s wager comes to mind, which states that a rational person should seek to believe in God just in case God exists (if not, no harm done). If my salt lamp neutralizes the electromagnetic waves coming from everyone’s phones, cool. If not, it’s still pretty, and it’s more grown-up than a lava lamp.

One caveat: We don’t recommend keeping any lamp on all night in the bedroom, because light disrupts the production of the chemical that regulates our sleep-wake cycle.

$15 through $49 from The Bodhi Tree, 1371 King’s Highway, Sugar Loaf NY; $34.99 with free shipping from

6. Paleo face cream

It’s winter. Gone are the leaves, and your skin’s elasticity. Post-shower, your face feels like a piece of printer paper. There’s an entire industry devoted to returning your face to its former self. Each prettily bottled ointment promises to make you younger, fight gravity or firm your eyes, but here’s the rub. Most anything on the drug store shelf has preservatives in it to keep it free of bacteria until you fish it out of the drawer three years later. These preservatives are not the kind that preserve your youth. Some can cause or promote skin problems, and some, like parabens, may be linked to cancer. That’s why creams and lotions top the list of stuff you should source locally. Locally made creams don’t need preservatives, since they don’t have far to go between maker and user.

Cindy Allyn, owner of Mother Earth’s Nail Spa, has been tinkering between appointments at a long table in her organic-focused salon, which is tucked away on the second floor of a strip mall in Florida, NY. From this unassuming base, Allyn just launched a line of skin care products that includes a tallow-based heel cream and, for those turned off by lard, a vegan hand cream. Our favorite is the Night Nourishment face cream. Made with grass-fed tallow (which Allyn renders in a crock pot from beef from Lowland Farms and Maple Terrace Farms), and nine essential oils, it leaves your face feeling like you’re in the tropics, even on the days you need snowshoes to leave the house. Use with clean hands and the cream will last a year.

1-ounce tin Night Nourishment: $25

7. Sparkle cuff bracelet

I call it my Wonder Woman bracelet. When I wear this bracelet, I feel fired up by an energy that must come from its maker. I don’t know much about Khalil Ahmed Khan, only that he – or maybe his son Nadeem, who’s taken over the family business – hammered the brass by hand in a city in northern India. I can learn more, like that all his children have graduated college and his daughter is now the company bookkeeper, from the artisan profile on the Mela website. But even without those details, strangers ask about my bracelet, because everyone can tell it comes from somewhere real.

The vision of Mela Artisans is to provide a sustainable global market for Indian craftspeople, while fostering entrepreneurship within their communities through loans. Browsing the site feels like walking an Indian bazaar.

$75. Bracelets range from $35 to $250.

8. Soy candles

If you’re into scented candles, or your house smells like cats, here’s a new and local twist on the Yankee candle craze. A stay-at-home dad has started hand-pouring soy-based candles in USA-made Mason jars (most candles are made of paraffin, a petroleum product) from his house in Croton-on-Hudson. Kurt Best started making candles from home two years ago, shortly after his daughter was born, starting Glow Candle Company. After a few months of using and researching paraffin, he switched over to the cleaner, renewable soy wax. The candles, with strong fragrances like pumpkin spice latte and spice cranberry, come with Pennsylvania-crafted lids from which a star has been cut out. Screwing the lid onto the burning candle produces a sort of Jack-o-Lantern effect, plus a more even burn. The candle burns about 100 hours. When it’s done, you can wipe it out with soapy water and re-use the jar.

$16.99, Frazzleberries Country Store, 24 Main St., Warwick NY.

9. Organic spray deodorant

Spooked about what’s in your deodorant but not ready to go full hippie? EO Products-- a line of organic soaps and lotions that’s become a staple in our household from the shower to the kitchen sink -- makes a spray deodorant that’s nothing but alcohol and essential oils. It comes in citrus, lavender and vetiver. If you just shaved your pits, it may sting for a second, but it’s a refreshing sting, like I imagine slapping aftershave on might feel for guys.

$6.99 from, also available in Whole Foods stores.