Envision yourself standing in the center aisle of gas station. We’re talking just your typical Shell Station or Speedway – two notches below a true convenience store, a notch below a truck store in terms of variety. There’s the smell of stale coffee in the air, a bag of ruby-red Twizzlers to your left, a sleeve of oatmeal cookies to your right.
Now — imagine that you’re on your way to a holiday party and you’ve realized that you forgot to purchase a host or hostess gift. I get it. Life happens. And this gas station is your last chance to purchase something, allowing you to cling to at least a semblance of civility, of appearing thoughtful and prepared. What would you buy?
This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot since Thanksgiving, when I heard a man call into “The Splendid Table” with that exact query on their “Turkey Confidential 2019” special. After some gentle ribbing, host Francis Lam and guest chef Samin Nosrat (who are both supremely delightful) gamely tackled his question and, based on what was on offer, suggested a pack of Modelo or Corona and a few limes.
With that in mind, here are some other ways to save face if you find yourself searching for a thoughtful gift in a place no one gives too much thought.
This is the cargo shorts of suggestions — not particularly sexy, but there’s a definite utilitarian appeal. On your way to dinner, call your host and ask if they need more ice. Nine times out of 10 the answer is going to be “yes.”
Beer or Booze
Depending where you are in the country, your gas station may sell wine and spirits. Grab a bottle, pair with a card, and you’re set. You may also be in a state where gas stations only sells beer; that's a little less fancy but not insurmountable, as discussed on “The Splendid Table.” Brown ales — Sam Adams Brown Ale and Brooklyn Brown Ale are pretty readily available — pair super well with turkey, ham, and the typical holiday sides. If there’s a local version, all the better.
For something a little different, grab a six-pack of Pilsner or wheat beer (almost every gas station has Blue Moon) and orange juice. Combine and you’ve got Beermosas, which can be enjoyed that day or the next morning — which takes us to the next suggestion . . .
Breakfast for the Next Day
The Big Meal ™ is cleared, the pie is eaten, the party is over. Maybe you’re staying the night, maybe you aren’t. Regardless, you’ve brought a gift that can be enjoyed the next morning when no one feels like cooking again. Think Pop-Tarts or a box of doughnuts (take advantage of those convenience store cases of Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’ Donuts); avoid biscuits or breakfast sandwiches since, sadly speaking from experience, they don’t reheat particularly well.
If you want to appear particularly thoughtful, grab some orange juice and a gallon of milk. Snag some bottles of Starbucks iced coffee beverages from the refrigerator. If by some stroke of luck there are other breakfast pastries on offer — a lone croissant, a not-quite-stale bear claw or apple turnover — pounce on those, too. There’s probably a small selection of blank greeting cards or postcards by the register. Buy one and write a quick note: Thanks so much for dinner tonight! Here’s something for you to enjoy tomorrow. Happy [Insert Holiday].
"Top Chef" It
One of my absolute favorite “Top Chef”challenges was from the first season in which contestants had 30 minutes and $20 to create a gourmet meal from gas station ingredients. (Chef Lee Anne Wong won with a Funyun and Oscar-Meyer Spiedini). Because of that episode, I still play the “What would I make from the ingredients here?” in most gas station stores, and you could definitely use this as an opportunity to enact a "Top Chef" fantasy of your own.
Granted, this is risky — and potentially more rude than showing up empty-handed — for a few reasons. No host wants someone bogarting their kitchen to make an elaborate bread pudding out of stale packets of powdered doughnuts and Nesquick powder; and there’s always the possibility that the result of your culinary experimentation would be a complete fail. Pack your knives and go, and all that.
So if you’re going to go this route, go simple. My friend Tanya suggested this combination which carried her through numerous college parties: “Can of chili or salsa, container of cream cheese, tortilla chips. Mix the chili and cream cheese in a sauce pan. Delightful appetizer.”
State-Specific Tchotchkes, Lottery Tickets, Gas Station Miscellany
Even the most bare-bones gas station store typically has an aisle or display of state-specific knick-knacks. Think shot-glasses, a lighter decorated with an outline of Texas, regional candy. Combined with scratch-off lotto tickets and perhaps one of those nearly-wilted cellophane-wrapped flowers available at some shops, and you’ve got yourself a hostess gift. If you happen to find yourself at a Southern truck stop, you’re in luck. They have walls of items like Lodge skillets and local apple butter. No one will be the wiser whence it came.