Word of Mouth

Forget Wine. Here's What Food Critic Karen Brooks Brings to a Party.

From geeky nut butters to cool chocolate bars, you're guaranteed another invite.

By Karen Brooks November 20, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

1217 wom food gift shelf ktjonl

Image: Michael Novak

The redhead stalking the jam aisle at World Foods in the Pearl? Yep, that’s me. I’m a jam fiend, true. But mostly, I’m looking for presents. All year long, I collect edible odds and ends that intrigue me and store them on my designated food gift shelf. Then I give them to people nice enough to invite me over. I rarely bring wine: a bottle is quickly relegated to oblivion on that table with all the others. But no one forgets a geeky nut butter, an unusual honey, or that cool chocolate bar. (I was outdone recently by a guest who presented our hostess a dozen eggs from her backyard. Touché!) Here’s what’s in my secret “guaranteed another invite” stash right now.

Greenstate Sugaring Maple Syrup

Dan Sullivan’s Black Locust Farm in Gresham is a PDX chef fave. Every winter, he returns home to Vermont to tap maple trees—some nearly 200 years old. The result: a true pancake elixir, more deep than sweet, with an elegant trickle and distant woodland notes. $19.75, Rubinette Produce  

Eliot’s Adult Nut Butters Harissa Cashew Butter

Friends in sad peanut butter ruts: this is your wake-up jar—creamy and nuttier than Congress, with addictive fumes of dry red chile, cumin, and coriander. $13.49, New Seasons

Hot Cakes Smoked Chocolate Chips

Of course you have a friend who wants to bake cookies that taste, emphatically, like a Northwest campfire, courtesy of Seattle-made chips smoked 10 hours over alder wood. $13.99, World Foods Everett

T Project Because the Night

Music lover and cook’s cook Teri Gelber pays homage to Patti Smith with a toasty tea blend that sneaks dried carrots and cacao beans into the bag with roasted Japanese hojicha leaves. $14–24, T Project, 723 NW 18th Ave

Hot Mama Salsa Smoky Coffee Chilie Oil

For anyone ready for next-level hot sauce, this is it, a kind of mystical drizzler from Portland’s small-batch heat thinkers—teeming with Mexican chiles, sweet black garlic paste, and Oaxacan coffee. $10, Portland Farmers Market and New Seasons

Old Blue Raw Honey

This Philomath farm harvests honey from bees that munch on Coast Range wildflowers, yielding unusual nectars imbued with notes of everything from earthy arugula to bright pumpkin. The Meadowfoam is a marshmallow fever dream. $11.99, Rubinette Produce


  • Gaston’s Ayers Creek Farm is the king of jams—vivid and concentrated, with flavors roaming from loganberry to green gage plum. $8.99, City Market
    Confiterie French-Algerian strawberry jam tastes like spreadable fruit leather, with deep savory-sweetness. $9, Tournant’s Café T, 920 NE Glisan St
  • Thick with soft rinds and voluptuously tanged, Moro Blood Orange & Tonga Vanilla Bean, from LA’s breakfast champ Sqirl, is the best orange marm ever. $13.99, World Foods Everett
  • Leave it to Italy to out rose the Rose City with Pietro Romanengo Conserva di Petali di Rosa, a.k.a. “Rosy Sugar,” which can do amazing things to a bowl of yogurt. $28, Luce

Chocolate Bars

  • Missouri’s Patric Chocolate Red Coconut Curry is a revelation. It’s Chiang Mai trapped in a very good chocolate bar that radiates toasted coconut, lemongrass, and chile. $14, Cacao
  • LA’s Milla Hazelnut Praline bar is for crackle people, each bite a crinkle-pop of nut candy and dark-meets-milk chocolate. $14, Cacao
  • The Chocolate Maker Studio Cardamom and Honey Caramel nails the snap and ooze of a filled caramel bar. $12, Cacao
  • From Portland up-and-comer Only Child comes Hedgehog in the Fog, which puts a Soviet cartoon into bar form, making white chocolate cool with bergamot winks and prickly black pepper. $6.50, The Meadow
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