Because cooking can be viewed as either a pleasant diversion or domestic drudgery, giving kitchen appliances as holiday gifts can brand you as either a hero or a heel.
Selecting a kitchen gift that won't offend the recipient requires keen political instincts, but a small appliance also may be exactly the gift solution you're looking for. Many kitchen appliances are available for under $100 and will delight the recipient who can't get enough of cooking.
Items in this category would include a coffee grinder, an herb mill, a rice steamer or a small food processor like the Cuisinart Mini-Prep.
The trick to selecting a kitchen appliance as a gift is to develop an accurate assessment of the type of cook you're shopping for as well as your real motives for buying this kind of gift. If your giftee is a die-hard foodie who spends all of his or her spare time in the kitchen, you probably can't go wrong with a kitchen appliance.
But if your recipient is an ambivalent cook, tread carefully. If you have even the slightest hint that the person would rather do other things than cook, be sure that you aren't buying a kitchen appliance indirectly for yourself. For example, if your gift is designed to send a message that the recipient should spend more time in the kitchen or cook better food while there, a Chia Pet will be more popular.
Giving gifts for the kitchen also demands a sense of style. Even with gifts for people who like to cook, the gift should not seem routine or mundane. If your giftee recently had a toaster fire, this is not your cue to buy a $20 Sunbeam two-slot replacement as a gift.
Kitchen gifts should never be pedestrian.
On the other hand, a Panini grill might be just the ticket. This little appliance, which makes fancy sandwiches at home, combines practicality AND trendiness. Compare and contrast that appliance with a George Foreman grill, which is long on practicality but scores a zero for style.
The George Foreman would be an appropriate gift for a college student or your bachelor cousin, but then so would a hot dog steamer. To be an effective Santa, you need to develop a feel for such things.
Similarly, a food processor would be an acceptable gift for a foodie, but a blender would probably be a poor choice. It's the pedestrian thing again. Forget about giving a hand mixer, but the person with more money to spend cannot go wrong with the Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. If you are leaning toward a waffle iron, be sure that it is unusual enough to be interesting. A Belgian waffle iron or one that makes pretty waffles (hearts, rosettes, that sort of thing) is probably a safe choice.
The important point to remember is that shopping for the holidays and buying a gift for a bridal shower happen on different planets. Never confuse the two.
And finally, never forget that what goes around, comes around. If you give someone on your list a deep-fat fryer, a Seal-a-Meal is probably headed your way.