Wandering into the office break room to fetch a sandwich bag full of limp celery, you see it, perched in the center of the table. With its cellophane wrap coruscating under the fluorescent lights, it is the first gift basket of the season.
Within seconds, the moribund celery is forgotten. You and your co-workers have torn off the perky, oversized bow and ravaged the food inside like wolverines. Chocolates, popcorn, cookies, crackers, fancy cheeses, dips: The gift basket’s contents are the very antithesis of the week-old Chinese food in the office refrigerator that is tempting nobody.
While everybody knows gift-basket food does not add to your daily calorie count during the winter holidays, have you ever wondered, with your mouth full of gourmet pretzels, where the gift baskets come from? I mean, they’re sent by your office’s accounting firm and various clients and vendors, of course.
That’s like answering “Santa” when a child asks about the presents under the tree. But where does Santa get these gift baskets?
He gets at least 1,000 of them during the holidays from Eddie’s of Roland Park, and he has been doing so for 29 years. These portable feasts are designed and assembled at its own combination North Pole/Willy Wonka Factory,
a place its employees call the Candy Cottage.
The Candy Cottage is a one-story brick building in the parking lot of Eddie’s North Charles Street store, so unassuming in its outward appearance it’s hidden in plain sight. But inside, shelves line the walls, stacked floor to ceiling with gift baskets. The center of the room is taken up in its entirety by a worktable piled with goodies, notebooks, cellophane rolls and ribbon.
Leslie Udoff reigns over this table. Udoff is the queen of the Candy Cottage, the Jewish Santa who has designed and personally packed these baskets since Eddie’s started making them. She does it, she admits a little sheepishly, while listening to Christmas music.
“The holidays are for everyone,” she says, shrugging. Every basket in the panoply that lines the walls looks machine-wrapped, but they are Udoff’s personal handiwork. Udoff has “the best team” that helps during December, but Udoff begins making baskets in late September.
And they begin to take shape, at least in Udoff’s imagination, in March. As the world’s earliest holiday shoppers, she and Eddie’s candy manager attend and eat their way through the “fancy food show in New York.”
“You just go and eat. It’s the best job ever,” she says. Then she starts writing things down, “current trends, what I want to see in the baskets.” She gets to decide which trends to pursue. Paleo is big this year, she says, and “gluten-free is still popular.”
She will order food from the gourmet show but says she strongly prefers to shop local. Udoff herself is a local,
“born and bred” in Northwest Baltimore. “We love local sourcing, using local products,” she says.
In fact, the ability to source locally is the biggest change for her job over the past 29 years. Even seven years ago, says Udoff, there weren’t enough local specialty foods and products to fill a basket. That is changing rapidly.
“This is our famous Maryland basket,” she says, holding up a tall, Maryland-flag colored basket. “This is my favorite. It has Toto’s crab soup, Naron chocolates, Berger cookies, Jeppi’s nut mix, Mouth Party Caramels, Carey’s Fine Food pretzels, Popsations popcorn and Michele’s Granola. This is the most popular one. We ship a lot of these out of town.”
In addition to Udoff’s creations, Eddie’s fills orders for “an amazing amount of custom baskets.” The strangest request? A gift basket for a horse. She also fills an annual order for a basket that’s essentially “big wooden crates filled with artwork,” she says. “People bring us some interesting things to put in their basket. Scrapple, crab cakes, 20 pounds of olives.” She’s up for it.
“We’ll do anything,” she says. She keeps a written diary of her work and, because of it, is able to point out her daily all-time basket-making quantity record: It’s 72 in one day. Fingers flying, she works while she talks, stopping occasionally to open a bag or jar of something she wants me to try. Her results make assembly look easy, and after tasting a lot of snacks, I decide I want to get hired.
She hands me a basket so I can work alongside her. We start by arranging the “shredding,” tiny paper strips that line the basket. “Push it in,” Udoff advises. “There. See? You want people to see what they have.” Then we add products.
“Don’t bury it too deep.” And, “pack shred behind it so it stays. Tall in the back.”
My shred is flying everywhere: Later, at home, I find some in my shoes and my hair. Udoff’s basket is a tidy, polished gem of carefully arranged products with cooperative-looking shred. “Am I hired?” I ask her. She inhales and pauses. “Do you want me to be honest?” she asks. Not really.
I try to redeem myself with the cellophane wrap as Udoff instructs: “Start at the back, gather toward the center. We roll, real tight, no, real tight. See how we do it all pretty?”
Finally, I learn to tie the bow. “Don’t obstruct the product,” Udoff says, reaching over and moving my bow. Her bow is buoyant. My red-and-green one sags with early seasonal affective disorder. So, I wasn’t hired as an elf in my dream factory. But I didn’t leave disappointed. The Candy Cottage allowed me to taste the snacks of Christmas past, present and future.
As I’ve learned from this and all the gift baskets I’ve raided in the past: It’s hard to be sad with a mouthful of gourmet pretzels.