white elephant

The Strategist’s Celebrity White Elephant Gift Exchange

25 gifts over 25 days.

Photo: Joana Avillez
Photo: Joana Avillez
Photo: Joana Avillez

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).

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 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.

Askinosie Chocolate Covered Malt Balls
$15 at Askinosie Chocolate

“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.

Yayoi Kusama Love Forever Dots Umbrella
$26 at MoMA Design Store

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.

Christophe Pourny Cutting Board Tonic
$22 at Joanne Rossman

“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.

Katz Rock Hill Ranch extra virgin olive oil
$23 at Katz

“I’m out of olive oil, and I trust Tom,” she says. “I’m down to keep it safe with a utilitarian gift even though I was slightly troll-y,” she says of her gift, which is still wrapped and sitting under the tree somewhere.

“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.

Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm Red Wiggler Live Composting Worms
$21 at Amazon

“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.

Kikkerland Solar Queen Derby Edition
$25 at Amazon

“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.”

90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days
$25 at Amazon

“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.

Hamilton Beach Breakfast Sandwich Maker
$25 at Target

“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 …

An Äggcøddler, for cooking coddled eggs, brought by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things.

$24 at Amazon

“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.”

Mockins Bluetooth Karaoke Microphone
$25 at Amazon

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.

Days of Awe: Stories
$17 at Amazon

“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.

Katz Rock Hill Ranch extra virgin olive oil
$23 at Katz

“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 …

The karaoke microphone brought by Katja Blichfeld, co-creator of High Maintenance.

Mockins Bluetooth Karaoke Microphone
$25 at Amazon

“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?)”

Play-Doh Sparkle Compound Collection
$5 at Amazon

“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.”

Kare & Kind Smart Dough Tools Kit
$16 at Amazon

“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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Welcome to the Strategist’s Celebrity White Elephant