Fasten your cummerbund. Top off your eggnog. We cordially invite you to the first ever Strategist (Virtual) Holiday Party — a white elephant gift exchange with 25 guests from across the New York (and New York) universe. There’s Danny Meyer under the holly chatting it up with Barbara Corcoran. What are Brian Lehrer and Casey Wilson whispering about by the fire? And of course John Derian’s upstaged everyone with his gift-wrapping. All of our guests have brought a $25-or-under gift — something that surprises, delights, or otherwise changes lives — and you, our 26th guest, get to watch the game unfold right here.
Here’s who’s coming: From the entertainment world, Katja Blichfeld, Kevin Kwan, W. Kamau Bell, Desus Nice, Barbara Corcoran, Casey Wilson, and Ramona Singer. Our chef and restaurant-owning guests are Tom Colicchio, Danny Meyer, Alison Roman, Samin Nosrat, and Angela Dimayuga. Our literary guests include Radhika Jones, Cheryl Strayed, Tracy K. Smith, and Leandra Medine; and the designers in attendance are Batsheva Hay, Isaac Mizrahi, John Derian, Jesse Kamm, and Yves Béhar. For good measure we also invited an astrologist (Susan Miller), a financial journalist (Andrew Ross Sorkin), a Saturday Night Live writer (Bowen Yang), and our favorite WNYC radio host (Brian Lehrer). (Click on the names above to skip straight to a given player’s turn in the game.)
Each of our guests has brought a white elephant gift. Some of them are gag gifts. Most of them are things each party guest uses and loves. Each day on the Strategist, one of them will open a gift, and the next day someone new has the chance to steal it or unwrap another one. Follow the journey of the Queen Elizabeth figurine as it bounces from one famous person to another (or just buy the sparkly Play-Doh Leandra Medine loves). From December 1 to 25, we’ll be publishing one “turn” a day, with the latest player’s gift pick up top. Come back every day — even on the weekends! — to see who left with a karaoke microphone, who took the composting worms, and who kept getting robbed. (For more on the rules of white elephant gift exchanges, see here.)
Day 25: Yves Béhar is up last
Merry Christmas, everyone. Twenty-five days into December, and it’s been quite the party. Chocolate malt balls, olive oil, and a Yayoi Kusama-printed umbrella have flown around the room, while a few guests (not to name any names, but Kevin Kwan and Samin Nosrat) are left wondering what on earth they’ll do with the composting worms and cutting board cleaning tonic they chanced upon. There’s only one unwrapped gift left under the tree by now, and designer Yves Béhar is No. 25 and up almost last. Faced with a bounty of presents, he decides not to chance it, snatching the Äggcøddler from Katja Blichfeld. The designer, of course, recognizes good design: “I like the material of this ceramic coddler and its Scandinavian design.” And: “I love eating soft-boiled farm fresh eggs in the mornings.”
That means we’re back to Katja. “I love that Casey thought to gift a TV show (hand-to-forehead emoji here),” Katja says, right as she steals the season pass for 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days that Casey Wilson brought. Plus, the premise of the show reminds her of some of her own travels: “I once traveled to Europe with someone I met in an AOL chat room in the ‘90s. It didn’t go so well and I left him in Amsterdam when he became enamored with rave culture and pitched that we ‘just stay there,’ abandoning the 8-country itinerary we had planned. My most successful online romance is actually what brought me to NYC in 2004. We were together for five years, had a very amicable breakup and now he’s my real estate broker.”
We’re on a bit of a stealing spree, what with the stakes being high this late in the game. Now that Katja is in possession of the television show, Ramona has to choose something for herself. She, too, passes over the last gift and alights instead on the leather-bound notebook that poet Tracy K. Smith brought to the party, and that John Derian opened. “Is it refillable? It is? Oh that’s perfect,” she says, clinching it. “You don’t understand, I love notebooks still. I always carry a notepad around because I have my list of things to do. When I’m having a conversation with someone, for instance, I like to take notes. Right now, I’m developing my skin-care so I’m writing down things like the shipping prices or whatever. And before the show, when I was in business for myself I would carry around notes and date them and then refer back to them to figure out what happened on what day or what someone said. I use a spiral bound shit notepad now, so this will be perfect for me.”
John, what’ll it be? “Caffeinated face wipes, please,” he says, stealing them from Radhika Jones. “I feeling like I am neglecting my face a little.”
“Then I’m taking the Äggcøddler!” says Rahika, securing it for herself for good, since that’s the second time it was stolen.
With that, we’re back to Yves, who only moments ago stole the Äggcøddler for himself. At this point, he decides to give in to curiosity and see what could possibly be in the last wrapped gift. And he finds …
Two rose-printed plates from John Derian’s shop, brought to the party by Radhika Jones.
“I will admit that there’s always a part of me that wants to choose a book — and if anyone wants a book recommendation, they can come back to me. But I thought these plates would be nice to choose. I have four of these and bought them on a whim at Hammertown Barn, which is upstate and is one of my favorite places to shop for gifts.
“I happened to start growing roses in our garden, in Brooklyn. I’ve become enamored of them. They’re just really sweet and lovely. And I am big tea drinker and these are great — you can never have too many fun plates, there’s always something to put on a plate. These plates don’t really go with anything, but they also go with anything. That’s what flowers do. That’s why they make a nice gift. Who doesn’t like roses?”
With that, there’s only one move left in the game: player No. 1, Danny Meyer, gets one last shot at picking a gift. Per the rules, he can take any of the presents the other players have opened and swap it with the Play-doh he opened at the start of the party. Danny surveys his choices — the Queen Elizabeth figurine, the ombré juice glasses, the breakfast sandwich maker — and goes for Bowen’s Zabar’s lox opened, that Batsheva Hay brought to the party, “because I think it will taste way better on a bagel than Play-Doh,” Danny says.
And that’s a wrap — we had a blast and hope you did too. Merry Christmas and have a happy New Year.
Day 24: Barbara Corcoran’s turn
It’s Christmas Eve, and the gift exchange is drawing to a close. For the scant few wrapped items left, the ratio of risk to reward is heavily skewed toward risk — something Shark Tank shark and real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran surely understands. Despite that — or perhaps because of it — she tries her luck on a mystery gift. And it is …
The molded sleep mask (with ear plugs) that Andrew Ross Sorkin brought to the game.
“I found this on Amazon after trying for years to find a sleep mask that was actually comfortable, so that I don’t wake up simply to fiddle with it,” said Sorkin. “I have the basic black, though I’ve always thought I should get the moon-and-stars one to step out a bit.”
Barbara’s on the record about using baths and massages to help get to sleep, and a good sleep mask can only help. “I’ve decided to park this little number on my desk,” she says, “in hopes it reminds me to squeeze in a quick catnap in the afternoon.”
Day 23: It’s Desus Nice’s move
Two days ago we learned a lot about Desus Nice, like how the Desus and Mero talk show co-host is one online comment away from belonging to an avid subcommunity of wax warmer scent fanatics. Now it’s time for the signed-to-Showtime comedian and Sex and the City superfan to choose a gift from the dwindling pile of presents left in our white elephant. He, too, goes for a mystery item, and it is …
An hourglass, from Susan Miller.
“I chose the hourglass because as an astrologer, I deal each day with the concept of time and the need to use it well,” Miller told us. “I feel that time can easily slip through our fingers if we don’t set up goals and marker points throughout a year. Time is the only natural resource we are given at birth that we cannot get more of when deleted, so it is precious. When I study the mathematics of the various astrological cycles, I see the areas of reward and challenge, and we need to be mindful of both to plan a richer, happier life. Challenges test our resourcefulness and agility, and in many ways are more important than the easy periods of reward that we enjoy. And it’s so nice — a little vintage-looking.”
“Wow,” Desus says. “I did not put that much thought into my gift.”
Day 22: Leandra Medine is up
“Count me in,” said Leandra, to our delight, when we invited her to the party. The founder of Man Repeller (or, as Danny Meyer put it after unwrapping the sparkly Play-Doh Leandra brought, “‘Man, how stellar?!”) is not just a street style celebrity or a fashion writer — she’s a purveyor of the unexpected. (See the aforementioned sparkly Play-Doh and any of her outfits for proof.) In keeping with that spirit, she ventures into uncharted territory: “I’m really wanting to steal that sandwich maker,” Leandra says, “but in the spirit of entrusting what occurs in the unknown, I choose number 20.” That means she gets …
Two children’s book: Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and I Am Enough, both brought to the gift exchange by W. Kamau Bell.
“People always talk about the golden age of TV or movies, but it’s also the golden age of kids’ media,” said Bell. “The two books I picked are actually useful for adults: you can give them to the kids in your life, but also, you can read them yourself. There’s a whole series of books where, as a parent, you’re like, I can’t read this book again. These are both smart and they have a message. The art is good. The book I Am Enough — as adults, we need to hear that and read that every day when we walk out into this world and think that we’re not enough. I was crying at the end, like, ‘I am enough.’ ”
“As a kid, growing up, you’d just get all the Dr. Seuss books and call it a day. But you want books to be relevant to your kids, so that the book will entertain them but also make them woke. Then they never have to think about the word ‘woke’ because they’ll already be woke.”
Not bad, as far as coincidences go: like Kamau, Leandra has two daughters, and like Kamau, she also brought two kids’ toys as gifts. Great minds.
Day 21: Isaac Mizrahi’s turn
If you’ll recall, Isaac Mizrahi — the Proust-reading, brioche donut–eating, cabaret-singing fashion designer — brought a book by A.M. Homes to the party. Brian Lehrer opened it several turns ago, and now, on the 21st day of the game, it’s Isaac’s chance to choose a gift for himself. Unswayed by any of the open and steal-able gifts, he choose a new one and finds …
This Edison bulb wax warmer, brought by Desus Nice, co-host of the Desus and Mero talk show.
“My friend gave me one of these, and you know those Glade plug-ins — this is like a high-falutin snooty version of it. It’s like a light bulb but it’s high voltage and you put wax on it, and it warms the wax and it give off a scent. The scent I have in my apartment is called something like ‘gray sweater.’ It’s very lush; it feels like a Drake cover.
“They sell the wax at Target and Walmart. It’s a huge thing, people buy them all the time and there are communities online where people say what waxes are coming out and if there are limited-edition waxes. It’s like sneakers but for older people who watch HGTV. In the reviews for the wax, people get very upset when waxes get discontinued. People are like, ‘bring back sea salt and rain,’ or whatever they’re called. It’s like the McRibs for candles. And I get it — every time I go to Target, now I have to buy a new wax.”
Isaac is tough to impress (he was as a judge on Project Runway, after all): “Air freshener of any kind is my personal scourge,” he says. “But who knows. Maybe someone has finally figured it out.”
Day 20: W. Kamau Bell is 20th to go
W. Kamau Bell always has something in the works: This year, the comedian-slash–professional empath debuted the third season of his CNN show United Shades of America and released a Netflix stand-up special; last year, he published his book, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. So we were delighted that he was able to swing through our party as well. Well positioned at number 20, with most of the gifts opened, Kamau wisely chooses to steal Samin Nosrat’s special soy-sauce from Jesse Kamm. “That rascal!” Jesse yells.
“Is it messed up to steal my own gift?” asks Jesse, giftless and in need of a new one. It’s not illegal, but since she’s already tried the Canyon Instant Coffee she brought to the party, we say branch out. “Then I’ll take the special-occasion malt balls from Casey.” And with that, the chocolate malt balls are out of the rotation and firmly in Jesse’s possession.
“I’m still processing the loss of the malt balls — gone too soon, but never forgotten,” Casey says. In her bereaved state, she reaches for a new, wrapped gift from the pile and finds …
Tarot cards, brought by Barbara Corcoran.
“I read tarot cards, and people tell me I’m extremely accurate,” Barbara says. “I say whatever the picture brings to my mind. A couple of years ago, I hired a young man at my company, and I happened to have a party the day he started. He was very sweet, innocent — not from New York. I sat down to read his cards and the first thing I flipped was the death card. I thought: You’re going to lose your job immediately. And I liked this young man. He was so frightened, and I reassured him no, no, that won’t happen. But guess what — soon after, it did. In any case, I’m always very in demand, especially at parties.
“Even the most boring people light up when you tell them their future, so it’s a perfect gift, because it gets people out of their comfort zones. These Rider-Waites are my favorites. I’ve played with a million different decks and I always come back to them. They’re easy to read, because the pictures say right on there what they’re supposed to be. But they’re also very visually interesting. The World card, which is usually just shown as a globe, has a young naked child dipping into a reflecting pool, in which he can see the whole world. It’s beautiful.”
Casey’s into the cards, and has an idea: “I just have one question for Barbara: Can we pitch our own set of tarot cards on Shark Tank?!”
Day 19: Susan Miller’s move
“Susan Miller is in this?!” Samin Nosrat practically yells when she realizes that, yes, the astrologist to the stars (and the masses) has come to our holiday party. Susan is the only player who expressed concern over the number she got out of the hat. Not for optimal gift-stealing purposes — rather, she wanted to come on a day with astrological significance, and asked if she could take No. 20 instead of No. 19, so that her turn would run on December 20, because “I pray to be on a day when the moon is not void of course.” (When the moon is void of course, mistakes and frustration are likely occurrences.) Alas, we’re sticklers for the rules. Susan surveyed the opened and unopened gifts before alighting on the geometry drafting kit, which is described as including a compass. “I’m always lost, so I need one,” Susan says. Plus, a compass helps with writing. “According to feng shui, if you face east your writing will be more imaginative and creative. This sounds like it would never work — until it does.”
The steal is good news for Batsheva, who wasn’t convinced by the geometry kit, but it’s bad news for Susan, because the compass isn’t a navigational compass — it’s a metal compass you use to draw perfect circles. This probably happened because the moon is void of course. While Susan tries to imagine what she’ll do with the drafting kit, Batsheva mulls over what gift to take. “I want to steal the Yayoi Kusama umbrella from John Derian,” she says. “I hope he doesn’t hate me for it.”
John doesn’t — if you’ll recall, he said he loves Brian Lehrer, but the Yayoi Kusama umbrella Brian brought, not so much. So now John gets to go again, and he decides to gamble on a wrapped gift. It is …
A refillable leather notebook, brought to the party by poet Tracy K. Smith.
“I had all these notebooks I would fetishize, and sit down with,” says Smith. “But now that I write on my laptop, carrying this thing around is a way of returning to another way to think about language. I teach and do workshops and my students, they submit their work online. But the classroom is an analog space so that we can just sit and talk, and look at pieces of paper, and it’s not interrupted by the screen. I like that carrying a notebook is just one more way [of] engaging in that old-fashioned approach.
“I bought this one maybe eight or nine months ago, because I was tired of putting things in my phone and my computer. There are three individually bound journals that you strap in to this leather case, and when one gets complete, I can remove it and file it away. The journal never gets heavy. I have it with me all the time; I write things down in meetings, or I pull it out when I’m on an airplane, and I get an idea for what would one day become a poem.”
Asked if he’ll use the poet’s favorite notebook, John says, “Oh yes!”
Day 18: Casey Wilson gets to pick a gift
Casey Wilson — formerly of Happy Endings, more recently a cameo-maker in everything from Curb Your Enthusiasm to The Mindy Project to Family Guy — isn’t just an actor; she’s a podcast host. Bitch Sesh recounts what happens across the Real Housewives franchise, which makes it cosmically curious that Ramona Singer (RHONY) drew Casey’s gift from the pile. (The gift is a season pass to Amazon’s 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days; Ramona hadn’t heard of it.) Today is Casey’s turn to choose a present, and she swiftly decides to steal the beloved-by-Danny Meyer chocolate malt balls that Batsheva Hay drew from the pile.
Robbed, Batsheva has to choose another gift. With roughly half of the items still wrapped, people are still giving in to curiosity. Batsheva grabs a new gift and finds …
A geometry drafting kit, complete with a compass, a ruler, a protractor, and pencils, brought to the party by industrial designer Yves Béhar.
“I think people are interested in craft and making things by hand again, like you see it with the vinyl trend,” Yves says. “If you use older tools you get different outcomes. If you’re an aspiring designer, or an old designer, this is still a good place to start, having your own geometry kit. I used to have a lot of these kits early on, and haven’t had one for a while, and realized recently that these are so cool. This organizes your tools in a cute little case, you put it all together, and you won’t forget any of the pieces behind. I’m planning on getting this exact one, actually.”
Asked about whether this drafting kit will come in handy, Batsheva — a bona fide designer — doesn’t exactly think so. “Ha, no not useful at all!” she says. “Can I steal or is it too late?” (It’s too late, rules are rules.)
Day 17: Jesse Kamm’s move
A pair of pants can turn you into a household name. “These pants have haunted me for two years,” said Strategist writer Katy Schneider of Jesse Kamm’s wide-leg Sailor pant, better known as the Kamm pant. That was two years ago; the Kamm pants are now practically canon and have lots of copycats (from the likes of Everlane and Madewell, among others). Kamm, one of our few Californian party guests, is number 17, and up next. She draws an item from the increasingly skimpy pile and it is …
“So, I have been eating soy sauce for many years in my life, like I imagine other people have been,” says Nosrat. “At home, I use high-quality soy sauce, beyond Kikkoman, but this stuff is beyond that. It’s from a guy who was on my show, from when I visited a soy sauce producer in Japan who’s making a soy sauce from the original method. Less than one percent of the soy sauce made in Japan is still made in this way, aged in these incredible wooden barrels. The guy who makes this told us that until he needed a new barrel in 2012, the last time he placed an order with his barrel guy was right after World War II. Kikkoman is aged in stainless steel. That’s like the difference between Two Buck Chuck and a nice bottle of wine.
“I thought I knew what soy sauce tasted like, but, boy. This tastes kind of like caramel. It’s so incredibly layered with aromatics. At home I just eat it on steamed Thai Jasmine rice with a little pat of butter. You don’t need much of the soy sauce, it’s so concentrated. Even as you pour it, you’ll see: it’s thicker and more viscous than regular soy sauce.”
Jesse’s into it: “Rad!”
Day 16: Cheryl Strayed’s turn
Whether she’s telling us about blue-light-blocking reading glasses and better-than-Danner hiking boots, or advising a babysitter to stop making out with her employer, Cheryl Strayed is a constant voice of reason. Naturally, the Wild author considered the game’s rules with care when she agreed to come to our white elephant. “Is the gift meant to be something kind of out-there/funny or something genuinely great/useful/cool?” she wrote to us. Either, both, all of the above, we said. And then she did just that and brought the adorable Swedish Äggcøddler, currently in Katja Blichfeld’s possession.
With number 16 out of the hat, Cheryl’s up. She makes a swift, practical choice: she steals the olive oil that Tom Colicchio brought, and that Angela Dimayuga stole from Kevin Kwan.
“I’m always up for a recommendation from people who might know better than me about such things,” Cheryl says. “I was tempted by the breakfast-sandwich maker but when I pondered it, I could picture it sitting in the far reaches of my kitchen cabinets for ten years, mostly unused. The olive oil will be gone within the month.” She can say that with certainty, too: it was the second time a player stole Tom’s olive oil, meaning it’s out of the rotation and belongs to Cheryl for good.
Back to Angela, who’s been robbed but is undaunted: “I’ll take the rainbow bowl!” she says of the glass bowl and juice glasses that Alison Roman brought, and that Vanity Fair’s Radhika Jones just scored yesterday.
That’s a shame for Radhika, who liked the bowl and the juice glasses. She decides to gamble again on a new gift and finds …
Caffeinated face wipes, from Bowen Yang.
“This is a two-sided wipe,” says Yang. “One side has these exfoliating beads, and the other side has a caffeine solution in it. It basically wakes up your whole face, or it’s like a jade roller, but in a wipe. I got them in my Birchbox Man, and then one day I had an important meeting late at night that I had to reschedule for 6 a.m., so I had like three hours of sleep. And then I was on a flight. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day but when I landed and went to straight to the set, I just wiped them on.
“It was truly the only way I survived. I have boxes of them in my office now, and boxes at home. They have truly changed my life, without hyperbole. They just add years to my life, especially compared to all the other things in my life that might take years away.”
Day 15: Radhika Jones is up next
Last year, Radhika Jones left her position as the editorial director of the New York Times’ books department to take the helm at Vanity Fair. And now she’s at our gift exchange, 15th to go, and she, too, picks a mystery gift. She opens it to find …
A rainbow serving bowl and ombré juice glasses from the MoMA Design Store, all impressively under $25, and brought by Alison Roman.
“I’m shooting my second cookbook right now, and so much of what you usually see in cookbooks is so white and austere and clean,” Roman told us. “That’s just not my style; it’s not what my kitchen looks like. If you know someone whose kitchen looks like that, where they think they have to have a super modern, clean aesthetic, I invite them to get some color into their kitchen.
“The rainbow salad bowl is a nice dish — you could set it out on the table for olives or nuts or candy. Or you could use it as your own personal bowl. And these two juice cups, I just got them for the cookbook. I have a prop stylist, and sometimes if she finds something that’s cheap I’ll just buy it. I like the book to be an accurate reflection of my life. I don’t like showing people a life that doesn’t totally exist.”
The dishes found a happy home: “I love all things from the MoMA store,” Radhika says. “Score!”
Day 14: It’s Bowen Yang’s move
We’ve known Bowen Yang since before this holiday party: for a time, he was recapping RuPaul’s Drag Race on Vulture and doing unfiltered interviews with Tracy Morgan and Justin Theroux at the Vulture Festival. Then he got the internet’s attention with a few extremely committed lip-synch performances on Twitter. And in September, Saturday Night Live nabbed him as a writer. Lots of people at our party are funny, but Bowen’s our professionally funny guest. And today’s his day to pick a gift. Choosing one from the dwindling pile, he gets …
Zabar’s Nova Salmon, brought by Batsheva Hay.
“I eat so much lox,” says Hay. “My son’s name is Solomon and when I named him I think I was subconsciously thinking of salmon. Zabar’s is a few blocks away from where I live, and I’m there every day because I’m one of these crazy grocery people and I have to stop in every day. I’ll think, I need one avocado later, to make a salad. At Zabar’s, you’re so lucky if the counter isn’t crowded. So it’s nice to snag this package. I eat it just straight, but if you’ve never had this — if I’m talking to a person from outer space whose never even had a bagel or cream cheese — it’s also good with some dill on a cracker.”
The salmon’s new recipient is equally appreciative: “As a bagel-head (not that kind of bagel head) this is huge for me,” Bowen says. “I’ll bring this to my local bodega and have them fold it into my usual bagel-cream-cheese order.”
Day 13: Tracy K. Smith is up next
Writers of all stripes have come to our party: we’ve had a comedy writer rubbing shoulders with an advice columnist mingling with a novelist who’s mixing it up with a poet. The poet laureate of the United States, actually: Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars and Ordinary Light. Tracy is lucky number 13, and she chooses a new package, to find …
Canyon Instant Coffee, from Jesse Kamm, designer of the cult-ish Sailor (wide leg) Pants.
“Obviously, instant coffee is generally crap,” Jesse says. “Which sucks for me, because I often travel to faraway lands, which more specifically means I’m often on a United flight where you can’t get a good cup of coffee, and then in a crummy hotel for a day, where, again, I can’t get a decent cup of coffee.
“My husband was given a box of Canyon Coffee for his birthday. And the morning after, we realized we were out of our regular beans, so we tried it. And I immediately said: ‘Is it weird that I like this better than our regular coffee?’ It’s very rich and delicious, which is all I know to say about it because I can’t pick up on notes of hazelnut or whatever else a foodie might pick up on. You literally just drop it into a cup of hot water and then you have coffee. Even if you don’t travel to places with really bad airports, you probably have to go to visit your in-laws in the middle of nowhere or something, and this will save your morning.”
Day 12: Batsheva Hay is twelfth to go
Batsheva Hay made a big name for herself this year. The Upper West Sider’s orthodox-inspired prairie dresses were worn by women like Erykah Badu and Gillian Jacobs, and the Batsheva dress line provoked headlines like “New York’s Hot New Trend? Prairie Dresses” and “I’d Like to Make the Case for Prairie Dresses,” from our own friends at the Cut. And now Batsheva is at our party. She, too, goes for a mystery gift …
And opens Danny Meyer’s favorite chocolate-covered malt balls, brought by the Shake Shack founder himself.
“We’ve all had a malt ball at some point in our lives,” Danny says. “I have a benchmark in my mind, which is probably the commercial type I used to buy at the candy store growing up. The Askinosie malt balls are something you know, done better than you ever knew it could be. It’s something that tugs on your favorite emotional food memories and then it actually exceeds all the good feelings that you may have already had.
“I found these because I was introduced to Shawn Askinosie. Like me, Shawn’s from Missouri, from St. Louis, like I am. He lives in Columbia, Missouri now. He was a pretty famous criminal defense lawyer before he decided to devote his life to chocolate. One hundred percent of the chocolate he sells is 1,000 percent traceable to the farmer who grew the cocoa beans himself. That’s probably not something you find on your average Whopper.
“I’ll tell you, the proof for these is that whenever I’ve had a can of the malt balls in my office, if I don’t hide them, they are all mysteriously gone within 24 hours. So I find places where I can hide the can. I can pop one of these in my mouth and I’m good for the afternoon.”
Day 11: It’s John Derian’s turn
We’ve had a few funny coincidences so far: radio show host Brian Lehrer drew a microphone, of all things, from the gift pile; Angela Dimayuga stole Tom Colicchio’s olive oil from Kevin Kwan, forcing Kevin to choose a new present, which just happened to be the gift Angela brought herself (composting worms). Now, designer, artist, and shop-owner John Derian is up, right after Samin Nosrat opened up his fancy cutting board-cleaning tonic. Presented with the option of stealing a gift or choosing a new one, John opts for something brand-new. His prize turns out to be …
A Yayoi Kusama-dotted umbrella, from Brian Lehrer.
“Umbrellas in New York City tend to be disposable, but this one is something you keep,” says Brian. “I realize there’s one big downside: it doesn’t fold up into your bag for when you get out of the subway. It’s a stick umbrella. But they work better.
“I thought someone in this group might like walking around on rainy days with this work of art. I did not brave the lines for the Infinity Room, but I’ve seen a lot of Kusama’s stuff online and that’s one of the great things about her — this 89-year-old who’s become an internet sensation. The umbrella is whimsical but also practical, and in this world, at this time when everyone seems to hate everyone else, walking around with something that says ‘love forever,’ with the polka dots, has got to be a good thing. You have the choice of red dots or blue dots. Personally, I like the blue-dot one.”
(And, yes, Brian knows that at $26, the umbrella is a dollar over the price limit. But it’s $23.40 for MoMA members, so we let it slide.)
The umbrella’s message is received, though John’s not exactly bowled over by the gift itself: “I will love him forever, just not his umbrella,” he says of Brian. “What’s my next choice? Can I steal? Curtain number 3?”
Day 10: Samin Nosrat is up next
Samin Nosrat, a “new kind of domestic goddess” and creator of the Netflix docuseries Salt Fat Acid Heat, was an obvious guest for this party. As a person, she’s ebullient, and as a cook, she surrounds herself with unusual ingredients and beautiful-but-useful tools. (We even had a Strategist reader ask us to find out where one can buy the yellow pot Samin uses on the show; it’s an old Dansk Kobenstyle casserole pot.) When her turn comes up, Samin also chooses to pass over the opened gifts, and picks a new one from the pile. She opens it to find …
A fancy bottle of Cutting Board Tonic, brought by artist and homewares designer John Derian.
“As a kid, I was always paranoid about the rumors about dirty cutting boards,” John says, by way of explaining why he brought a white-vinegar, rosemary-oil, and walnut-oil tonic for cleaning cutting boards. “When I was young we went from wood to plastic because that seemed like the thing that would keep them sanitary. So plastic was the thing, but now it’s not the thing. I have a lot of cutting boards — I keep them separate, I have one for garlic and onions and one for vegetables — including a large butcher block in my kitchen. When friends are over it always comes up: How do you keep it clean?” The answer is with this Christophe Pourny solution that cleans and conditions the wood — and looks nice sitting on the kitchen counter.
“I should’ve taken the sparkle Play-Doh!” Samin yells. “How is this from John Derian, who has a shop full of the most magical wonderful things? But I’ve never cleaned my cutting boards so I guess it’s good. I’m also noticing this is a glass bottle with a resealable pump. So maybe I’ll just reuse the bottle.”
Day 9: Angela Dimayuga has to pick a gift — or steal one
“I love games, I’m so down for this,” said Angela Dimayuga when we asked her to come to the white elephant. We think that’s saying something: This is a person who bakes glitter cakes, and who, after a long stint devising some of Mission Chinese Food’s more inventive dishes, is now the creative director of food and culture for the Standard Hotel group. (She also has a line of “unisexy” bathing suits and recycled cotton T-shirts.) The chef–designer–party person draws No. 9 and doesn’t hesitate — she immediately steals the olive oil from Kevin Kwan.
“Thief!” yells Kevin, who was so ecstatic to get olive oil that he “consumes by the gallon.” Forced to go again, he picks a new gift. It’s …
Composting worms, the “troll-y” gift brought by (what are the odds) Angela herself.
“A really fun thing about a white elephant gift exchange is that you can kind of do whatever you want,” Angela says. “This is a fun option for that what-the-fuck factor, but I actually bought these when I was a young line cook who couldn’t afford to buy a $15 juice. I juiced at home and had a compost bin. Basically, the worms churn your food waste into compost quicker. I’m really into pet projects, like fermentation and making my own kombucha.
The reason I picked 500 worms is that with shipping it’s under the $25 budget. But when I bought them I got 1,000 worms. It’s not that much; they come in a small package. The idea is that if you keep the compost going they’ll regenerate and keep growing. If you go on vacation for two weeks and don’t feed them they’ll probably die, but otherwise they’ll be fine. They’re like a little pet.”
“I have absolutely no idea what I would do with this,” Kevin says. “Maybe I’ll release them into the rooftop garden of the townhouse near me where a Brazilian trust-fund brat lives, and likes to throw parties starting at 2 a.m. — on weeknights.” He isn’t exactly persuaded to take up composting: “This is the story of my life, I suck at games. Can someone please steal my worms?”
Day 8: Tom Colicchio’s turn
Our other restaurateur (and, actually, our other reality-television star) Tom Colicchio brought an olive oil with “fruity notes, but also some pepper notes in the back” that was already picked and opened by Kevin Kwan. Tom pulled No. 8 out of the hat, and he, like everyone so far besides Alison Roman, is choosing to gamble on an unopened gift that turns out to be …
A solar-powered Queen Elizabeth hand-waving figurine, brought to the party by Kevin Kwan.
“It’s like a maneki-neko, those gold cats from Japan where the paw goes up and down,” Kevin says of the doll he brought. “But in the queen’s case, the hand twists in a very special way; it’s like changing a light bulb. The royal family pioneered this, because doing actual waving for hours is like instant carpal tunnel. And this amazing little doll mimics that exact twisting motion perfectly. I saw this for the first time at Tea & Sympathy in New York, in the West Village. I’ve always wanted one and never gotten around to actually getting one myself. My family has always been royalty-mad, and it’s been passed on to my generation. More than that though, she’s kind of the most iconic figure in the world. If you ask anyone around the world, who is the queen? She’s the one. They don’t think of Queen Máxima of the Netherlands.
I should point out that this is the luxury version of the figurine. The economy version is like $17.95 and she’s wearing a pink dress. But in this one she has an amazing hat on and for me, the queen always needs a hat on. She’s not the queen without a hat or a tiara.”
Day 7: Ramona Singer’s turn
Fresh off her electric breakfast-sandwich maker’s entrance into the gift rotation, after Andrew Ross Sorkin opened it, Ramona’s turn is up. The longtime Real Housewife (of New York) drew No. 7, but instead of stealing any of the six open gifts, she opted for a fresh one. And the reality-television celebrity gets …
A reality-television show, in the form of a season pass for Amazon’s 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days, brought by actor Casey Wilson, who actually has a podcast, Bitch Sesh, dedicated to discussing Real Housewives episodes. “My two favorite garbage-y worlds have collided and I have passed away,” Casey says. “Farewell, cruel world.”
“I found out about this show from Vanessa Bayer,” Wilson says. “She was a guest on my podcast, which covers garbage television in general, and she grabbed me by my shoulders and said, ‘You’re out of your mind if you’re not covering 90 Day Fiancé.’ I watched, and it’s life-changing. Each season follows six Americans who think they’ve found their soul mates online, and are traveling to a different country to meet them for the first time. You get some crazy couples on there. Like, a grandma from the Deep South, traveling to Nigeria to meet a man in his 20s. The couples are real, but may or may not be using each other for a green card. Which is why I like it — I like reality served up with lives on the line. My husband is a comedy writer and he said he’s truly never seen a funnier show on television.
“The season I picked for this is the best one: the craziest couples, the wildest pairings. And post-holidays, you’re going to be exhausted, you’re going to crash, and you’re going to need your curl-up-in-bed show. How else to put this? It’s a balm for your soul.”
Ramona has no idea what 90 Day Fiancé is, but, to be fair, she’s been busy filming the 11th season of her own (reality television) show.
Day 6: Andrew Ross Sorkin picks his gift
Andrew Ross Sorkin — author of Too Big to Fail, co-creator of Billions, founder of the New York Times’ daily financial report DealBook, and the person who’s likely taught you the most about how money works — is sixth to go in our ($25-and-under, fiscally responsible) white elephant. Not enticed by anything already opened, he chooses a new gift …
And unwraps it to find a Hamilton Beach Breakfast Sandwich Maker, from Real Housewife Ramona Singer.
“I have to be honest, I just Googled the best gifts for $25 and under, and this came up and I thought, ‘Oh!’” Ramona says. “This thing lets you make a meal all in one step. It’s like a panini machine that lets you cook everything you need. Plus it’s easy to store and easy to clean. At home, if I make a breakfast sandwich, I have to scramble the eggs, and it means you have to take out the pan and dirty it, and then you have to make the toast, and clean that up. If you like to eat, this thing is for you. I’m thinking about getting one for myself.”
Turns out the left-field gift makes sense to Andrew: “I’ve long been a Real Housewives of New York fan,” he says, “and I would not have guessed Ramona would have gifted one of these. But the great thing about Ramona — and the Real Housewives — is, you never know what you’re going to get.”
Day 5: Katja Blichfeld is fifth — and up next
To quote our friends at the Cut, who profiled the co-creator of HBO’s High Maintenance in January: “Katja is cool.” The gift she brought to our white elephant is also cool — or at least certifiably coveted — given that Alison Roman already stole it (a Mockins bluetooth karaoke microphone) from Brian Lehrer. Katja pulled No.Angela Dimayuga 5 out of the hat, and rather than steal her own microphone or another already-opened gift, she picks a mystery item from the pile. It’s …
“This porcelain pot makes the most exquisite eggs,” Cheryl says. “All you do is put the egg and whatever other ingredients you’d like to add into the pot, place the lid onto it with the attached silicone strap, and set it in a pan of boiling water. It was designed by a Swedish designer, Jois Lundgren, so I wish I could say I came upon the Äggcøddler during my travels in Sweden — I was there with my family in 2017 — but my discovery of it was less romantic: I came upon it by chance on the internet when I was looking for directions on how to make the perfect soft-boiled egg. Now I have four of them with different colored lids, sitting on my counter.”
“Cheryl, are you keto?” asks Katja, who adds that she loves the coddler. “I’ve never seen this before, but I frequently eat eggs for breakfast, so would definitely use this item. Plus it’s quite cute.”
Day 4: Alison Roman’s turn
Perhaps because she’s a self-identified “seasoned pro” when it comes to white elephants, Alison Roman — New York Times food columnist and author of Dining In, last year’s most popular cookbook — didn’t hesitate on what to do when her turn came up: “Bluetooth karaoke microphone, 100 percent,” she says, choosing to steal one of the few already-opened gifts instead of gambling on a new one. “Why would I chance it and run the risk of getting something terrible when it’s like this gift was chosen for me? What’s my go-to karaoke song? It’s such a loaded question. But I often open with ‘I’m the Only One’ by Melissa Etheridge.”
That means Brian Lehrer is getting a little lucky and doesn’t have to keep his would-be extracurricular microphone. He turns back to the pile of wrapped gifts, and plucks a new one at random. This time he gets …
The book Days of Awe, by A.M. Homes, brought by designer Isaac Mizrahi.
“My mother always said that when in doubt about a gift, buy someone a book. I take that one step further: Buy everyone a book that you love,” Isaac says. “You kind of can’t go wrong, even if they don’t like it — how can it be bad to give someone else something you like?
I think of A.M. as a very classic writer. And yet, incredibly relevant. When I know she has something new, I seek it out and then I get in a kind of a ecstatic trance — I read this book in one whole sitting. It was one gulp. There are maybe seven or nine stories, and the thing I find so miraculous about that book is how it’s so relevant without being about anything. Every single one of the stories feels like it’s happening in real time.
I actually know her now — we met by chance while I was discovering her books, because I knew her through a few different people. Now I’m like a stalker of A.M., or like a fangirl. She’s kind of enigmatic; even the name A.M. doesn’t have a gender. It doesn’t have a lot of things, actually, it could be a nom de plume. If you love this book then I’d just start over chronologically. It’s like downloading episodes of Breaking Bad, it’s best to start at the beginning.”
It’s a fortuitous score for Brian: “I haven’t read Homes’s books but I read her intriguing essay this year” — published in The Paris Review — “on having written letters to famous people as a teenager as a way of dealing with her fear of leaving home, and I’m curious to read more.” Either way, he says, “Better than a toy microphone!”
Day 3: Kevin Kwan is up next
When Kevin Kwan, author of the best-selling book Crazy Rich Asians — recently adapted into the blockbuster movie Crazy Rich Asians — immediately RSVP’ed in the affirmative to the white elephant exchange, we knew we’d be in for something interesting. After all, this is the guy who told us about how the same “CRA” who might get plastic surgery for her fish would also write with a cheap pen taken from her doctor’s office, for the sake of thriftiness. But for now, it’s his turn to pick a gift from the pile, and he drew No. 3 out of the hat. He passes over the already-opened Play-Doh and karaoke microphone, chooses a wild-card item instead, and opens …
Katz Rock Hill Ranch extra virgin olive oil that Tom Colicchio, Top Chef judge and restaurateur, brought to the party.
“There are several olive oils you can find for under $25,” Tom says, referring to the game’s price limit, “and anything in that price point is a good value. It’s a good gift: It’s like wine — you don’t drink just one wine. But people get into a rut and they buy the same thing off the shelf. And there’s tons of different oils out there, from the obvious countries like Italy and France to Greece, to North Africa, and also California. You know, I go through olive oil pretty quickly, but I think the average person holds onto it a bit longer. For a bottle of wine that’s priced the same way, it’ll be gone in a day. But olive oil will last a bit.
This one has some fruity notes, but also some pepper notes in the back; there’s a spice to it. You can do gentle cooking with it, or just use it as a finishing oil or for a vinaigrette over meat or pasta. A nice little thing to do for a roast meat or fish is a quick salsa verde. It’s just a lot of parsley, some capers, a little shallot, some chili peppers, and then some of this peppery olive oil. It helps dress up a meat or fish, to make it more special.”
Kevin says, emphatically, that he loves it: “I consume olive oil by the gallon, so this is the perfect gift for me.”
Day 2: Brian Lehrer’s turn
We have a bit of a Brian Lehrer fan club in the office. (In the words of Strategist editor Simone Kitchens: “He’s like king of New York to me.”) So, lucky for us, the WNYC radio show host agreed to come play. He draws No. 2 and chooses a wrapped present at random, rather than steal Leandra’s Play-Doh, which is now owned by Danny Meyer. And the gift he unwraps is …
“Karaoke is what my friends and I do for anyone’s birthday, to celebrate any occasion,” says Katja. “We go to Karaoke 17, on 17th Street, and get a private room. I used to have an appointment nearby on Thursday, and after it ended at 5 p.m. I’d meet my friend and it would be just the two of us, handing the microphone back and forth. Now he’s doing it all the time, and his boyfriend loves it, so he got this Bluetooth microphone. I’ll get funny videos of them singing at weird hours. How you use this thing: you can find literally thousands of karaoke tracks on YouTube, without the vocals. The speaker is just in the microphone. It’s reportedly easy enough to set up; my friends who are tech-challenged were able to do it.
I have an ongoing note on my phone so that whenever I hear a song that might be good for karaoke, I write it down. I tend to gravitate towards ’80s and ’90s R&B. An Anita Baker song, or SWV. My weird wild card is an Amy Grant song, where I call upon my childhood Christian-rock roots. People never see ‘El Shaddai’ coming.”
The irony of the gift is not lost on Brian: “My gift is a microphone of all things?” he says. “I talk into a mic every day for work. But the thing I’ve never gotten to do, which I could do with this one, is to drop it.”
Day 1: Danny Meyer is up first
Danny Meyer — the Shake Shack founder and restaurateur behind everything from Union Square Café to the new and casual Tacocina taco counter — is one of several guests at the Strategist Holiday Party who are, themselves, frequent hosts: people who cook for a living or own restaurants. Danny draws No. 1 out of the hat, which means he’ll also get to close out the game by stealing whatever he wants from all the opened gifts. In the meantime, faced with 25 wrapped gifts, it’s just a matter of rolling the dice. And the one he chooses is …
Sparkly Play-Doh, brought to the party by Leandra Medine, founder and editor of Man Repeller. He is, to put it mildly, charmed: “Man Repeller? More like, ‘Man, how stellar is this!?’ Finally, a sparkly pliable substance I can mold and extrude to my heart’s content. Many thanks to Leandra for this delightful distraction — and for all the style tips (turtlenecks, you’re sure?)”
“It’s two things,” Leandra says about the Play-Doh and the accompanying extrusion kit. “My children are still too young for Play-Doh, but I’ve certainly been spending more time in children-centric environments, and finding myself feeling really relieved by all these toys that exist to help develop a young mind. Particularly because they could also help develop a fairly seasoned mind.”
“It’s sort of running a gamut, right? Playing with My Little Pony Beats is fun, and it helps me with concentration and not feeling so distracted, but playing with Play-Doh also provides this really delightful sensory experience that potentially could help reduce stress — not that I’ve personally seen that in my own life. But it taps into the inner kid. We all need a little sparkling reminder that we can still enjoy the little things.
Also it tastes pretty good. I love salty.”
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