Where Do You Find Meaningful Stuff?

By: Jen Shoop

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The other day, I was chatting with a new and well-traveled friend, and she mentioned that she maps out her travel itineraries with militaristic precision. She books all the tours and activities in advance; scouts restaurants for meals, snacks, and in-betweens; and even charts travel times between itinerary stops. Reflecting on the research that went into our recent Calistoga, CA trip, and how time-intensive (though…fun?) it had been to trowel my way through countless Reddit threads on the subject of Northern Napa and cross-check them with recommendations from a few friends and Magpies, I asked: “How do you figure out what to do and where to go?” She shrugged: “The Internet.”

But, like, what and where?! Are there shortcuts I’m missing?

We all have those friends who know the best place to buy chocolate in Brooklyn, speak passionately about the fancy coffee-brewing equipment they’ve procured from a small glass-blowing business in Italy, attend the most interesting cultural programs. And we all want to know: how do they find about these things?

I know this because, first, I routinely ask this question when in the presence of my in-the-know friends, and, second, when I shared I’d seen Ann Patchett at the Library of Congress a few weeks ago, the number one response I received was not “what was she like?” and “what did she say?” but —

“How did you hear about this?! I’ve lived in D.C. for years and never know about these things!”

My knee-jerk reaction was: “It was kismet! I happened to look on Ann Patchett’s website out of the blue to see if she had any upcoming speaking engagements, and voila.”

But the truth is that I’ve developed certain habits of looking in certain places, and it’s more systematic than I perhaps thought. Today, I wanted to share some of the resources I use when seeking meaningful things, whether those be experiences, travel itineraries, technology, etc.

Travel, restaurants, really niche (non-fashion) purchases — Reddit, Reddit, Reddit! For example, I used it heavily when trying to buy Mr. Magpie a fancy manual coffee grinder. (Anything that you feel might have a passionate, geek-y followership — wine, coffee, technology) is bound to have tons of Reddit threads. You can search for nearly anything here using search terms like “best Calistoga CA restaurants” or “what to do in Calistoga CA.” You must then filter through tons of comments, sussing out the credentials/veracity/taste of each Redditor through context clues. (You know what I mean: the minute we read, “I swapped applesauce for butter, cornmeal for flour, and canned peaches for the recommended apples…,” we must firmly, kindly discard the subsequent critique.)

Technology — Mr. Magpie recently shared this technology review resource (Rtings.com) with me when I was trying to decide which pair of noise-canceling headphones to buy. They are very thorough and judging by the lack of “gloss” on their website, you can trust these are true engineer / tech nerds (ha!). I would cross-check this resource by skimming reviews of each product on Amazon and doing a quick dip on Reddit.

Recipes — We (well, mainly Landon) rely on a vast library of cookbooks, but top of the heap: for pasta, Missy Robbins and “Oretta,” as we fondly call her in our kitchen; for baking, Stella Parks; for fish, Paul Johnson; for French, Daniel Boulud; for American classics, America’s Test Kitchen; for Southern, Garden & Gun; for Mexican, Nopalito; for veg, Josh McFadden. Landon also follows tons of chefs on Instagram and is often reporting new finds, ideas, ingredient sources by following them. If you’re as passionate as he is, take a minute to draw up a list of your favorite restaurants, or the ones you’re dying to go to, and then follow their chefs de cuisine on Instagram.

Wine — Aldo Sohm and What to Drink with What You Eat. We also do things like look up the wine programs at restaurants we like to see what they’re serving and subscribe to the email lists / Instagram accounts for wine shops we know and like. We’re still big fans of Flatiron Wines in NYC (often have our wine shipped from there) and, here in DC, have been following Domestique for a long while but not yet made it downtown. They specialize in natural / funky wines. We’re all hot on Napa wine right now, and so are always staying plugged into a few of the wineries we liked out there. You just never know what they’ll be sharing — special deals, limited edition bottles, recommendations for food pairings!

Cultural Events — I’m on the mailing list for several local museums (Kreeger, Phillips, Smithsonian, Dumbarton Oaks) and try to skim their offerings every now and then. I also signed up for the French Embassy’s newsletter and sometimes come across really fabulous programming, like the evening we spent listening to a piano concert there! Kennedy Center and Warner Theater are musts, too.

Book Talks — In NYC, you MUST sign up for the 92nd St Y’s newsletter. They get ALL the gets. I attended some mind-blowingly wonderful presentations, poetry readings, author talks there and still review their events, telling myself “I can always train up for the day and crash with my sister or best friend, both of whom still live in NYC.” Here in D.C., I follow Politics and Prose and Sixth and I for these kinds of opportunities. I also look up speaking engagements on the websites of the authors I like most, especially if the book is buzzy — there’s a good chance they’re on a press tour. I’m SO sad I just missed a talk with Alice McDermott at Politics and Prose this past week…

Book Recommendations — I love Ann Patchett’s bookstore’s website for this. I have good friends and sisters who religiously stay on top of the top book awards and their shortlisted nominees for recommendations, too.

Household Products — I still use Wirecutter as a “first pass” for things like “best batteries” or “camping pillow.” I never go to them when aesthetics matter. They’re good at rating for function, but never aesthetics! I’m a little less enchanted with them ever since NYT bought them out, but still a solid resource.

Music — We’re not huge concert-goers, but I do check the lineup at Wolf Trap religiously in the summer (when in Chicago, I did the same with Ravinia) and skim The Anthem’s offerings. I’m still not cool enough for 9:30 Club. Never have been, never will be — but my sister did take me to see Norah Jones there when she was only twelve or thirteen! We always call it, fondly, “our first date.” (If you grew up in the D.C. area, you will understand what I mean by the vibe of this venue!) I also check the tour dates for musicians we like whenever the mood strikes — usually after we’ve checked out the latest “Tiny Desk” videos over a few glasses of wine. Ha! Danger zone. This is how I ended up buying tickets to Father John Misty, a performer I barely know. But I never regret the experience! Fun to get out there and try new things.

Then, of course, I follow a constellation of creatives and writers on Instagram who are constantly planting the seed for new experiences, restaurants, etc. I hope to be one of those resources for some of you, too. I spend a lot of time following fashion and shopping at the source and love curating the best.

Anyhow, turning things over to you now.

Where do you go for trusted recommendations? What are your sources for “meaningful stuff”?


+What music do you play at home?

+Pour from the center, not the rim.

+What is your current hyper-fixation meal?

+We traveled to the Eastern Shore a few years ago, and I still think about this placard about the vernacular of local oystermen.

Shopping Break.

+RUN to buy this $49 metallic turtleneck. The silver sold out within 24 hours. I managed to get the gold! Perfect for way to communicate “festive” while pairing with an easy pair of jeans.

+Perfect $12 thin velvet headband.

+Julia Amory just released the prettiest tree skirts. While there, may I urge you to try a Julia Amory shirtdress? I’m telling you — the best. So comfortable, easy to dress up or down, flattering, etc!

+These tall boots are SO GOOD. Very Isabel Marant, but waterproof and currently on sale for $160.

+Fun retro-style cardi for under $50 — LR just released a much more expensive version of this.

+Perfect White Elephant gift.

+These $70 flats look so much like my LRs.

+Pretty earrings to finish your Thanksgiving look. Colors and scale are perfect!

+OK, Zara, we see you. This under-$200 cocktail dress is FUN.

+I just added a “Gifts” section to my shop this week — a simplified place to get my top gift recs in one spot. Will be adding to it over the coming weeks. Also: I updated my Shop weekly! Lots of great find there right now.

+My mom was texting me in pursuit of an “elevated loungewear” outfit for longer travel days. (She’s very dressy and I was almost shocked she asked about this.). I pointed her in the direction of either Gap’s CashSoft line or, for a splurge, these Kilte sets.

+Caspari makes the best taper candles in the best colors. Need the gold! If your tapers suffer from “gangster lean” once you place them in the holder, use this to keep them upright!

+Fun gal’s night idea: have friends in for delivery burgers and martinis and use these fun placecards to set the table. (Related: thoughts on a retro-style cocktail party here.)

+These marbleized lampshades would look so spectacular on your Thanksgiving table.

+Just stocked up on these sweats for my son in basically all colors while on sale.

+Jo Malone sent me this candle and I’ve already been burning it, compulsively. I don’t usually like candles that smell like baked goods (vanilla, chocolate, etc), but this is divine. It has a spicy complexity to it that makes it feel less like “gingerbread” and more like “warm winter smell.”

+Adorable dress coat for a little lady. Also love the ones from La Coqueta.

+Love the color and collar of this cardigan.

+Love this complete set of Laguiole cutlery.

+CUTEST chocolate suede tote.

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29 thoughts on “Where Do You Find Meaningful Stuff?

  1. For the DC area, I highly recommend the Washingtonian’s “Things to Do” newsletter! It offers a weekly menu of various events happening around the area, including concerts, exhibitions, festivals, and restaurant openings. It even includes a section geared towards children’s activities. I look forward to receiving it every week.

  2. I immediately thought of Christmas gifts. I save unusual finds throughout the year, or even year upon year, and I try to be as hyper specific as possible. The Strategist from NY Mag is an absolute favorite of mine, and I read every single piece they publish. This particular gem is the best I’ve read this year: https://nymag.com/strategist/article/best-christmas-gifts-under-50-2023.html
    To me, a generic gift is worse than no gift. I also love things.i.bought.and.liked and The Nat Note on Instagram.

    I’ve been a big Etsy shopper for well over a decade, and I used to search my favorites for unusual gifts. Unfortunately, I’m now enough of an edge case (over 40K favorites!) that their search algorithm can no longer parse my careful selections, so I’m reduced to making lists that include only the more recent finds. My biggest Etsy wins over the years: a handmade, gemstone-planeted orrery for my hard to shop for father-in-law, an exquisite pop-up Last Supper card for my Nana, and many a friend in high school received a replica of Bella’s bracelet from Twilight when that was THE book. Most recently, I found a vintage push pin ornament kit for my SIL that looks just like the ornaments her great grandmother made.

    I have dozens of specialty chocolatiers bookmarked because I send my Nana chocolate for all major holidays, and I like to pick and choose. Burdick Chocolates in LA is really special, their little Halloween ghosts in particular. I love to save unusual food gifts for my brothers, like the delicious Omsom sauces, Bachan’s, or specialty vinegars.

    For travel, I love to find a friend of a friend who’s been to the city in question, or better yet, a native.

    1. Kelly, reading this makes me feel like we are soul sisters! I, too, keep notes throughout the year of interesting, highly specific items for people. I have a whole list of “brands to explore” with really cool kids, grown ups, pets gift ideas… I just love sending a thoughtful present!

    2. Kelly! YOU are the friend I’m talking about! The one who ferrets out the good stuff. Thanks for the tip on NYMag — I hadn’t known about that guide! Immediately dogeared to read later.

      Thank you for sharing these great resources / brands!


  3. Where to find good things…
    This is niche but we Seattleites are SO lucky J. Kenji Lopez-Alt moved here!! He gives great restaurant recs on his IG, and we’ve had so much fun trying them out- we’ve never been disappointed! If you’re in Seattle he’s a must follow.
    For books, Tertulia.
    For easy weeknight meals, Sam Sifton has never steered me wrong, and his newsletter is GEM! He throws in music, book etc recs and he’s turned me on to great stuff!
    In that same vein, Michael Ruhlman’s newsletter is great, and I love that his wife (the fantastic writer Ann Hood) chimes in 🙂
    And HERE, of course!! Xo

    1. Ooo, you’re so lucky to have J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, whom Landon and I refer to as “Kenj” in our home (we also use his recipes a TON). Just signed up for the Ruhlman newsletter! TIA!


  4. Love this post because it’s been top of mind for me (esp with kid activities), but it can be soo time consuming! I find that email lists for items of interest are the easiest way to stay in the know for both local and non-local events, and I’ll also sign up for newsletters from neighboring cities as well. I also sign up for the library newsletter and local theaters!

    For travel, the first thing I do when planning a trip is to peruse tour sites for itinerary inspiration! I can filter by area and length of time, and it gives me a rough idea of highlites, activities, and length of time needed at each destination. There are a bunch out there, but I always start with G adventures (https://www.gadventures.com/) since it aligns most closely with my age group and interests (although I’m starting to age out of their target audience hah). I then cross reference with Rick Steves (he’s got so much info out there in many different formats), but what I appreciate the most about him is that he’s very opinionated. Skip this town, spend more time here, etc. Also, I cannot recommend his free audio app enough if you’re traveling to a destination he covers. You and your partner share a set of air pods so you can experience it together, hit play (can download ahead of time), and you’ve got your own walking tour guide that allows you to pause whenever and makes it a sensory experience (playing Baroque music as you approach a Baroque-period building!). We used it in Munich and Italy, and really enjoyed it.
    I leaned more heavily on my Airbnb hosts on my most recent trip, asking them for restaurant recs to get a feel for where the locals go. I’ll also ask hotel concierge to make reservations for me sometimes if there’s a language barrier, and in Beaune, our B&B was able to get us into a sold out restaurant because her husband was a chef there!
    I also have chatGPT help me with trip planning! They don’t have the latest, latest info but I’ll input my itinerary complete with dates and ask it to give me average lows and highs for those days, give me sample itineraries (kids ages, interests, etc) and the responses are surprisingly good.

    For kids activities (these are the hardest!! The activities often fill up the fastest, need to determine if kids ages are appropriate, attention sustainability vs cost, is it during naptime??, etc) I turn to my very active local moms Facebook group which is a treasure trove of info. I also go there for non-kid related questions like, where is the best place to buy Japanese milk bread, and any recs for attic insulators?

    I actually only use Reddit when looking up luxury jewelry reviews (a VCA necklace, Cartier bracelet, etc) but found your prompts helpful and need to leverage them more!

    1. Oo these are excellent — I am taking note especially of your travel resources as we prepare for some international trips next year. Thank you so much. Especially love the idea of the free audio app!


  5. I’ve had this gingerbread biscuit candle on my radar, but waiting for someone to review. I’m intrigued to try the fragrance as well. How was the throw? Thank you.

    1. Hi Anne! It is EXCELLENT! Good throw — even when not lit, I come down my stairs and can smell it. It’s a really lovely, warm, spicy scent but doesn’t knock you out with cloying baking-inspired smells. Strong recommend especially since I usually gravitate towards the fir / smoke scents this time of year. This feels a little different / more interesting.


  6. You’ve inspired me to sign up for these local mailing lists, thank you! I too, always lament seeing cool local author talks, podcast recordings, etc. on friends’ instagrams after the fact. I found out Anthony Doerr was speaking at the Shakespeare Library last week day-of and missed the registration cutoff – was SO bummed. In addition to reading his more recent novels (Cloud Cuckoo Land is such a favorite) I just found out about his early 2000s “Four Seasons in Rome” and devoured it after visiting the city in September. It’s a memoir of his time there as part of a writing fellowship, two infant twins in tow. A great, reflective read on the juxtaposition of Rome’s ancient roots vs. living there in modern society + commentary on the early days of parenting (his takes remind me a lot of your writing on the layered joy, heaviness, identity-shifting, etc. of new parenthood).

    1. I hate when that happens (you find out about something just a touch late…!) Thanks also for the rec! I hadn’t heard of that one. Adding to list!


  7. May I suggest you also add the newly reopened National Museum of Women in the Arts to your local list? In addition to the art, programming has started including Sunday’s talk by Katy Hessel author of “Art Without Men.”

  8. Reddit is truly a gold mine. I also love perusing the location tags of places I’m going on Instagram to see a broader, less glossy/curated take than you’d normally get from an influencer. I also love googling around for a hyper-specific travel blog when I’m looking for details on hikes. It seems that no matter where I go in the world, there’s someone who is cataloging all the hikes in an certain area complete with photos and way finding tips.

    1. Oo Anna – the idea of using location tags is so smart! Good way to skim and get a “real” look at what people are doing, eating, etc!


  9. My only thing I really do — lol — is travel so for this, my key resources are:
    1. Preliminary overviews of places — always reading the Lonely Planet opening chapters to a country and cities. This paints a picture of the place in advance, has weather recommendations, and helps with drafting itineraries.
    2. Skyscanner and Flight Connections — the combination of these two resources helps with mapping flights and evaluating options for routes in/routes out before mining airline websites. This is especially handy if you need to “Frankenstein” flights together to get into a destination, e.g. when we flew into Georgia a couple of years back, it took me forever to work out how to get from Italy to Georgia then I realised we’d need to transit another country, et voila, hello long weekend in Budapest! I will make a note that Skyscanner especially trumps all other flight search systems as the user experience is superior and they really do collate all the flights you need to look at. The whole month view option is also very helpful if your dates are flexible and you want to snag a deal.
    3. Booking.com — becoming a loyalty member on here (Genius level) is helpful if you travel frequently. You can unlock high-level discounts, free breakfasts, and airport transfers this way, too. Additionally their rating systems for properties is far more in-depth than Airbnb (e.g. wifi ratings and bed ratings) which is very helpful if you have specific needs in these areas.
    4. Anytype, Dropbox, and Bitwarden — project management and security system for all key information and files. We use these two systems for all of our file management, resource collation, planning, and inventory system (essential for travel insurance and tracking items in storage). These systems organise all of our information, links, and we can both access these products from wherever and almost whenever provided they’re synced. In terms of personal security, these systems are very tight and I have ID information saved into my password manager so I can simply fill in visa and entry forms without looking up physical documents.
    5. App organisation — for international travel especially, manage your high-level apps in advance. E.g. check what navigation apps and transport apps you will need then have them pre-downloaded and set-up. Key strategies with this are to set an alarm for when you land in a new country to change over your contact number in Uber, pre-download Google Translate in the local language and Google Maps for your destination if wifi is dodgy (essential in places where mobile service while driving is patchy), and you can even have a separate shared Google Map for travel wishlists that uses specific emojis according to interest (we use this system for health services, accommodation, etc.). The latter strategy with maps uncovers gems of interest in advance, too.
    6. Pinterest and Podcasts — I collate images of destinations well in advance that inform what we might want to do. This is the only social media I personally use however then it links on to any articles people have written about the place and is much more user-centric that instagram. I find if travellers have gone to the trouble of writing articles then they’re usually travelling intentionally, will have in-depth insights into the destination, and it is a good link ecosystem for recommended services, etc. The same applies with podcasts as these people have real insights into travel that surpass many other sources; my go-to’s are The Travel Diaries, Conde Nast Women Who Travel, and Off Menu (amazing resource for food and a delicious — no pun intended — listen for giggles and recommendations over a meal at home).
    7. Payments — Though not exactly a resource, I would recommend familiarising yourself with the local currency in advance and having a card that can handle international currencies at good rates. My go-to for this is Wise and I could sing their praises forever! A huge advantage is that their 2FA is all in-app so they’re geared to you being on the road and doing things rather than you having the same mobile number, etc.

  10. The Cup of Jo comments section is not only a joy to peruse, I have harvested the best recommendations for everything under the sun. It’s not necessarily a go-to resource if you’re looking for specific advice, but if you enjoy collecting bits and bobs along the way, it’s just a delight.

    1. I have lost so many hours to the CoJ comments section! Great recs but it’s also the coziest, most supportive place. I love that the Magpie community has a similar feel!

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