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Make A Trade At The Chicago Food Swap

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Oct 3, 2013 3:41PM

2013_10_foodswap_melissawiley1.jpg Affairs of the appetite, food swaps operate on the timeless lunchbox economy (e.g., trading two Little Debbies for one crustless PBJ) but with more creative bargaining chips. Going beyond food in jars, these silent auctions invite you to barter your best and give as good as you get.

“Many people who support the swap try to shop and eat locally and seasonally. For them, the swap is part of that,” says Chicago Food Swap co-founder Emily Paster of swappers’ motivations. “Others try to make most of the food that they eat themselves as a way to avoid chemicals and processed food. Swapping homemade food for other homemade food is a way to expand their pantries. And still others just love to cook and want to eat delicious food homemade by others.”

The best home cooks, after all, can only cook so much. Sometimes even they need to flee their stove tops to exchange ideas as well as snag some fresh bourbon marshmallows and pumpkin pesto—both open for bidding at September’s swap—while they’re at it.

More than just a cash-free way to restock your cupboard, food swaps are a bona fide international grassroots movement, one launched in Brooklyn in 2010 and now fast transforming isolated DIY efforts into creative collective endeavors. Thanks to Paster and co-founder Vanessa Druckman, Chicago has had its own swap since 2011.

“I loved the idea because I am an enthusiastic canner and always have more jam and pickles than my family can eat. I looked around but couldn't find a food swap in the Chicago area, so I decided to start one,” Paster enthuses.

Held in a Forest Park craft boutique basement, Chicago’s first swap hosted a dozen people in December 2011. Now swaps take place monthly and typically welcome hundreds. Every event this year has filled to capacity, leaving several on a waiting list. Because home cooks are bold souls these days.

Unlike a potluck, where you bring your best casserole and cross your fingers someone will spoon out more than a mercy serving, a swap entails real risk. Theoretically, you could leave worse than empty handed, walking out with exactly what you brought and nothing else besides. After an hour of sampling others’ wares, you could bid all you like on that pack of pickled peppers and still fail to offload your carton of cultured buttermilk.

But this is a game of strategy, not chance. The key difference between what transpires here and the gambits made inside your grade school cafeteria is that if you bring nothing but liverwurst to this table, the onus is yours alone. You can’t blame your mom for not packing any Oreos, and fear of rejection provides all the incentive you need to cook something tasty enough to trade.

“We've never had a situation where someone had no interest in any of his or her items,” Paster gently insists. “Frequently swappers will have one or two items left over, but there is no embarrassment about that. As the organizer, I try to make sure that everyone is participating, but it's usually not an issue. The community is very open and welcoming. And truly most of the food is yummy. Swappers often provide samples, which can assuage any doubts. I know sometimes new swappers are scared or intimidated to come, but it's really not like that. Not everything at the swap is fancy or gourmet. Some people just bring cookies or fresh salsa. If you can make one delicious thing, someone will want to swap with you.”

Granola and baked goods tend to be the most common items on offer, placing a premium on more exotic foodstuffs. “A lot of people bring jams or pickles, and the items tend to be non-perishable and portable for obvious reasons. Now there are a lot of veggies from people's gardens. Because there are often so many sweet items, savory items are very sought after. Anything that seems labor-intensive like fresh pasta is popular. I've never seen anything really strange, but I've definitely been introduced to some new foods, like amaranth candy or Jamaican sorrel, a drink made from tropical flowers.”

Newcomers, she advises, should keep quantities generous but in small or single serving sizes. Cupcakes, for instance, are likely to attract more traders than a whole cake. And the more you prepare, the more you can take with you.

“People usually bring multiples of two to three different items,” says Paster. “You never know what will be popular, so it helps to have some diversity in your offerings.”

Like we said, strategy.

Much like farmers’ markets, food here reflects seasonality. Favorite family recipes, however, often trump the time of year.

“Now we’re seeing a lot of herbs, fruits, and veggies from swappers' gardens. But because many of our swappers are into home food preservation like canning, freezing, and dehydrating, you will see things like jam or pickles all year long. For example, I have a gallon of sour cherries in my freezer, so I will probably bring some sour cherry goodies to a swap months from now. In the winter, we might see more baked goods. Many swappers bring family recipes, so we see a lot of ethnic delicacies like Polish farmers cheese, empanadas, or lumpia.”

Hearty food, as we all know, often translates to heartier friendships, and a sense of community has arisen around these events, which make the rounds of local foodie venues, most recently the Peterson Garden Project.

“I run into swappers all the time,” Paster muses. “Also, for passionate cooks, the swap gives them a chance to get some recognition for their expertise and hard work. It gives you a reason to push yourself as a cook and to try more and more ambitious recipes or projects.”

The next swap takes place Oct. 6 at the Savory Spice Shop in Lincoln Square but has already sold out. Beginning October 7, however, you can sign up to participate in the November 10 swap at the Chopping Block in Merchandise Mart.