Last week, I attended my first BK Swappers event, hosted at the Mealku offices. Though food swapping (and bartering in general) is an age-old concept, we seem to have downplayed this method of obtaining goods in recent years. When's the last time you traded someone a bushel of apples for a new bicycle tire? For DIY food projects, though, swapping just makes sense. Putting up a dozen pints of berry jam is great, but you start to lose enthusiasm for the sweet treat after jar six, and then what do you do? If you're clever, you go to a food swap and exchange your extra items for new, exciting treats that required no labor on your part. In my case, I scored a quart of hard cider made from local apples, a half pint of limoncello, onion powder (!), garlic confit, rainbow heirloom dilly beans, miso caramel corn, and a small tub of fresh ricotta. All of it homemade by enthusiasts in my city.
Some industrious canners and food artisans do use swaps as a way to offload extra containers of whatever they've stored for the coming months (or spread the word about their small-batch food company), but other attendees are simply kitchen enthusiasts, eager for a chance to tackle a project, meet new people, and take home some (potentially unusual) goods. By New York City standards, I have a ton of storage...but that really means my apartment has two closets total. I tend to take on recipes with a smaller yield, since I can't store a lot of what I put up. For the swap, though, I made two batches of ginger ale syrup as well as two batches of whole-grain mustard. I've been meaning to make mustard for ages but had somehow never gotten around to it; this swap was exactly the motivation I needed.
The concept of a swap is simple: Bring at least five goods to trade, roughly equivalent to a jar of jam (whether that's equivalent in cost or labor or volume is never discussed, and it doesn't seem to matter). Set your stuff on a table and fill out a small swap sheet with your name, the item on offer, and any special information (allergens, storage instructions, usage tips). On each sheet, there are blanks where other swappers can write their own name and list what they're willing to trade. Swap sheets are nonbinding -- they're just an expression of interest and can help swappers target their attention. After everyone has had a chance to mingle, check out the goods, and sign up for items they want, the true swap begins. It's a little frenetic, with folks zipping across the room clutching jars of rhubarb syrup, bags of granola, strips of jerky, and the like, but somehow it all works out. "Do you still have your pickled fennel?" "I'm all out, but I have these dilly beans." "Great! You want some mustard?" "Done."
A swap is a great way to get to know other people in your community who feel the way you do about food. It's a way to try new things (miso caramel corn? Don't mind if I do). And let's be honest, it's also a way to show off your skills. Swapping is about trading resources, time, expertise, and -- yes -- love. Everything I brought home with me bore a handmade tag, or the marks of the craftsperson who made it. That's an experience you don't get at your local grocery store, and it's one that increases the value of the food we eat. Being more connected to the act of making food from scratch, or of sharing it with a new friend, makes each bite precious.
Check out the Food Swap Network to see if there's a swap near you. If not, consider starting one -- that site has a bunch of resources for getting the already-fairly-simple concept off the ground in your community. You never know what you'll bring home. It could be homegrown vegetables, eggs taken from the coop just that morning, local honey, handmade soap, or an unusual sweets creation (like the pumpkin/snickerdoodle hybrids someone had at my swap). I'm already dreaming up what I'll make next. It could be cider molasses. Or maybe vanilla extract. Or perhaps pots of my homemade Greek yogurt...
Have you ever swapped food with your friends or neighbors, formally or informally? And would a swap encourage you to try something new in the kitchen that you'd been afraid to tackle?