I went to a daytime gathering last weekend and brought a vibrant, festive poinsettia for the hostess. Who doesn't like poinsettias? Well apparently they're quite difficult to keep alive and this particular couple had a cat (and the leaves can be quite poisonous for pets). Oops. Wine is often the safest choice because everyone does it, but then again, not knowing the host's taste can make it a difficult decision. And when the party's over and everyone is long gone, you generally don't remember who brought which bottle so it can end up feeling a little arbitrary.
At a party I recently hosted, a friend brought me candied citrus peels from a local baker. Another friend brought jam. And yet another brought a framed photo she'd taken while with me earlier that year. Each was thoughtful and unexpected in their own way, and each I've enjoyed while thinking of that individual person in a way I just wouldn't have with a bottle of wine.
So what's the best choice for a universal hostess gift? Something small and thoughtful from your local community that reminds you of that person? Something you've shared together in the past that you know they'll enjoy? I, for one, am moving away from plants and wine, and trying to bring something more personalized this year. A small token, often edible, of my appreciation for having folks over. I've been bringing local honey and spiced nuts lately. I'd love to hear what you're doing.