Hoffman's Houston
nutcracker is back

Ken Hoffman's guide to Houston's wildly popular Nutcracker Market

Ken Hoffman's guide to Houston's wildly popular Nutcracker Market

bacon wrapped shrimp
Thousands pack the annual Nutcracker Market.  Photo courtesy of Uncle Julio's
Nutcracker Market Shoppers
Houstonians wait all year to shop the market's offerings.  Courtesy photo
Ken Hoffman Nutcracker Market Vino dog Donne di Domani Patriot Paws
Nutcracker Market vendor Donne Di Domani supports Patriot Paws, which aids veterans. Photo courtesy of Patriot Paws
Nutcracker Market Miam vendor
Look for new vendors such as Miam! Photo courtesy of Miam
Nutcracker Market Shopper
It's best to arrive early to stock up.  Courtesy photo
bacon wrapped shrimp
Nutcracker Market Shoppers
Ken Hoffman Nutcracker Market Vino dog Donne di Domani Patriot Paws
Nutcracker Market Miam vendor
Nutcracker Market Shopper

Never mind Black Friday campouts at Best Buy, or Mayor Turner’s official Christmas tree lighting downtown, the real start of the holiday shopping season around here is Houston Ballet’s Nutcracker Market at NRG Center. More than 100,000 people annually scoop up unique gifts, home décor, jewelry, food glorious food, cookware, and everything else that fits under a tree or in your backyard.

The annual event runs Thursday, November 8 through Sunday, November 11. There will be more than 280 vendors from across the U.S., but as always, the busiest booth will belong to a sorority of Italian ladies selling their coveted Donne Di Domani spaghetti sauce. They’ll be located in Booth 920 — that’s toward the back and to the right.

Or, just follow the fast and furious stampede of shoppers that makes the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona look like a lazy stroll along the beach. Each year I issue this warning: if you want to get your hands on Donne Di Domani sauce, get there on Thursday to be sure. Friday is rolling the dice. Saturday is a long shot. Sunday you’ll find a “Sorry Sold Out” sign. Better luck next year. 

As they say in certain neighborhoods, I got history with the Donne Di Domani ladies. Sixteen years ago, they invited me to watch their operation, making the sauce, bottling it and sticking a neat ribbon on the lid. I was made a pretend Italian and appointed Assistant to the Regional Ribbon Sticker.

These are special ladies. They sell their celebrated sauce only once a year, and only at the Nutcracker Market. The sauce is $10 a bottle, or $120 for a case. Credit cards will be accepted this year. It’s the only spaghetti sauce I’ve seen on eBay for five times the original price.

A hilarious and heartwarming tail
Donne donates every penny of its profits to a wide range of local charities and scholarship programs. We’re talking millions of dollars over the past three decades. The true spirit of Donne Di Domani is found in the ladies’ support of Patriot Paws, which trains service dogs for wounded U.S. soldiers. Patriot Paws gives the dogs free to vets, but it costs $30,000 and takes two years to train these remarkable dogs. Since 2013, Donne Di Domani has footed the bill for several service dogs. And when you pick up the entire tab, Patriot Paws lets you name the dog.

Donne Di Domani sponsored its first Patriot Paws dog in 2013. They named it Hoffy. It beats any honor I’ve achieved in my life, and that includes the Hoffy Burger at Demeris BBQ and "Ken Hoffman is Nuts" ice cream at the Chocolate Bar.

Hoffman's spirit animal
Hoffy, a beautiful white Labrador Retriever, was only a few months old when he entered the Patriot Paws training course. As part of his training, Hoffy was sent to a women’s prison where inmates work with Patriot Paws dogs. When I heard that, all I could think was “lucky dog.” (Those are my favorite movies.)

When the dogs leave prison, they are assigned a vet who needs help with daily chores.When the inmates leave prison, they are certified dog trainers with a career waiting. Win-win. 

While incarcerated, Hoffy was supposed to learn 55 special “behaviors,” that would make life easier for a vet, including intricate maneuvers like removing the vet’s socks and helping him (or her) into a shower. I watched a demonstration at the Patriot Paws facility in Rockwall, and attended a graduation ceremony where an Army vet received his dog. Touching? Wow.

Hoffy didn’t get his cap and gown. Seems he wanted to play when he was supposed to be working. His trainer said, “Hoffy sometimes gets distracted by other things when he is working.” If she had added, “he has potential but just doesn’t try,” I would have accused her of stealing my high school report cards.

Less than a year into training, impish Hoffy was booted out of Patriot Paws.

Two more Donne Di Domani dogs, Saucy and Gunner, graduated with flying colors, however, and are living with wounded vets. A new Donne dog named Vino has just started training with Patriot Paws.

In case you’re wondering whatever happened to Hoffy, he’s now enjoying the easy life with a new name and a family that dotes on him. He lounges on a dog bed that cost more than my bed. He eats higher quality food than I do. Here’s how crazy this family is about him. They totally believe that he faked being the class clown so he could get out of working and come live with them. He gets more walks than Alex Bregman. This dog and this family belong together. It was kismet.   

Donne Di Domani sauce comes in two styles, original and spicy. See you at Booth 920 on Thursday. All the Nutcracker ticket money and 11 percent of every sale goes directly to the Houston Ballet Foundation.

Watch for these new Nutcracker vendors 
As always there are a few rules: no strollers, no rolling carts and no pets permitted inside NRG Center. Wheelchairs and service animals are okay. Please don’t block the aisles. Throwing elbows will land you in the penalty box.

There will be 26 new vendors this year. Here are three to look out for:

Brewhouse Bakers (Booth 1566) is based in Katy and sells artisan beer bread mixes called Soberdough. That’s because the alcohol vanishes during baking. Flavors include Cranberry Orange, Cinnamon Swirl, Pumpkin Spice, Honey Wheat, and Hatch Green Chili Cheddar. Beer is not included in the package.

Miam! (Booth 1436) means “Yum!” In French. Here you’ll find specialty gourmet foods imported from Mediterranean countries, plus olive oil and grapeseed oil from California, and culinary pieces from South African artist Carrol Boyes. Miam! is based in Houston.

PDQ Meals (Booth No. 1412) sells mixes that let you prepare casseroles like King Ranch, Sour Cream Enchilada and Deep Dish Pizza in 20 minutes. Based in Magnolia, PDQ Meals is debuting One Pot Vegetarian meals at the Nutcracker Market. Not affiliated with the PDQ chicken tenders drive-through joint.

And three more booths that donate their profits to charity:

The Brookwood Community (Booth 1821) is a ministry that provides educational and vocational opportunities to adults with special needs. 

M.D. Anderson Center Children's Art Project (Booth 1200) sells art objects by young patients treated at the famed cancer facility. 

Gingersnaps Etc. (Booth 1556) sells ginger cookies in a keepsake gold container with profits going to The Center, a United Way agency helping children and adults with special needs. Full disclosure: I've eaten about a billion of these cookies. 


The Nutcracker Market will be open for business from Thursday, November 8 through Sunday, November 11. The hours are 10 am to 8 pm on Thursday and Friday, 10 am to 6 pm on Saturday, and 10 am to 5 pm on Sunday. Half-price tickets go on sale three hours before closing time. $20 at the door.