If you've ever asked a neighbor for a cup of sugar or dropped off extra tomatoes from your garden, you know how nice it is to be able to share food with people around you.
My tight-knit circle of neighbors and I frequently drop off extra homegrown peppers, chicken and dumplings, herb-infused olive oil, enchiladas, cookies and even compost scraps at each other's houses.
Swapping food, either casually among neighbors or in an organized group, is reviving a barter-and-trade system for food that went away with the advent of the modern grocery store, when Americans got to stop worrying about growing, trading or stocking up on enough food to make it through the winter.
As we grew accustomed to shopping in anonymity and buying prepackaged foods made in factories, we lost the art of acquiring things to eat from people we know. But now that more people are growing, making and preserving foods (and drinks) they once bought from a store illuminated by fluorescent lights, they are rediscovering the benefits of trading goods.
When Kate Payne moved from Austin to Brooklyn, N.Y., two years ago, she met dozens of fellow food crafters and modern homesteaders who were brewing beer and kombucha, canning fruits and vegetables, raising backyard chickens for eggs, making their own granola, bread and liqueur and even keeping bees for honey.
"I wanted to have a place to celebrate the communal aspect of homemaking," says Payne, whose first book, "Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking," is coming out in April. "It's more fun to go shopping when you know the people who have made the goods."
Payne and an urban farmer friend decided to create a get-together where people could share their bounty with others in exchange for a variety of other hand-crafted food items.
About a year ago, she started hosting food swap events for her foodie friends, packing two dozen of them into her 600-square-foot apartment, and the BK Swappers bimonthly food swap was born.
When Payne moved back to Austin late last year, she brought the food swap with her.
In the quiet before the Christmas storm and with the help of Austin blogger Megan Myers, Payne hosted the first ATX Swappers event, bringing together about 15 home cooks, bloggers, farmers and other food folk whom she'd met online.
As the guests arrived, they filled up a large kitchen island with jars filled with berry jam and chutney, bags containing flaky baklava and others bursting with homegrown citrus fruits and pecans, homemade butterscotch caramels, chai granola, pickled okra, cowboy cookies, coconut macaroons and candied cardamom orange slices.
Once all the food items available for swapping were in place, people picked the items they wanted and traded them, item for item, with fellow swappers. "It's better than any Central Market gift basket I could buy," Kristina Nichols-Wolter says as she finishes packing up her bag filled with goodies.
(This month's swap has a waiting list, but find out about future meet-ups at swappers. Want to begin your own food swap group? See the box of tips for getting started at right.)
In addition to Brooklyn and Austin, swap groups inspired by Payne's have formed in Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Houston, and there are hundreds of other informal groups for homebrewers, canners, salsa makers or even gardeners looking to trade both seeds and extra produce.
Austinite Sarah Binion, who is hosting this month's swap before she moves to London later this year, says she is already connecting with expatriates and foodies in her future home. It's not just lemon curd and scones she's after. "I wanted to do this in London as a way to meet people and to start forming relationships around food," Binion says.
Food is a natural ice breaker, so food swaps are as much about making new connections as they are about what food people are swapping that day. "Everybody knows somebody," Payne says. "You connect people and let food do the rest."
Olive Oil Muffins with Lemon and Thyme
1 Tbsp. melted butter
Flour, for dusting
11/3 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. grated lemon zest
2 whole eggs
1/4 cups olive oil
2/3 cup whole milk
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. minced fresh thyme
For the glaze:
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 Tbsp. melted butter
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, or more as needed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour a small amount of melted butter into each holder in a muffin pan. Swirl the pan to coat the pan and dust lightly with flour. In a blender, pulse sugar and lemon zest until combined. One at a time, add the eggs and blend completely. Gradually pour in the olive oil and the milk, pulsing just as many times as it takes to emulsify the mixture into a thin batter. Do not overblend.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking power, salt and thyme. Add dry ingredients to the blender in two batches until just combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake just until cakes start to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 25 minutes.
While the muffins are baking, make the glaze: Whisk together powdered sugar, melted butter and lemon juice until smooth, adding more lemon juice if too thick. When the cakes have cooled, drizzle glaze over them and garnish with a small sprig of thyme.
— Adapted from a recipe on ‘The Pioneer Woman Cooks,' www.thepioneerwoman.com
4 or 5 organic Meyer lemons (organic is important here because you're using the rind of the fruit, which is where pesticides accumulate in most conventionally grown produce)
2 cups vodka
11/2 cups sugar
Halve and juice Meyer lemons. Reserve the juice for another use. Scrape as much pith out of the rinds as possible. Slice each rind half into about four long strips; place in a clean, glass quart jar.
Add 2 cups vodka and make sure all the rinds are submerged. (Add a little more vodka if necessary.) Seal the jar with a clean, tight-fitting lid, and with a permanent marker, write the date two weeks from the day you start the limoncello. Place the jar in a cool, dark place and swirl the jar every few days for the next two weeks. After two weeks have passed, make a simple syrup by dissolving sugar in 2 cups water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and keep at a low boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat; let cool to room temperature, about an hour.
Add 2 cups simple syrup to rind-infused vodka. (You might have a little simple syrup left over, which you can store in a jar in the fridge.) Stir well, seal the jar, and store again for two weeks. (Don't forget to write the new date, two weeks from this middle step, on the jar so you won't forget.) Swirl the jar every few days to keep the mixture evenly distributed.
After the simple syrup, vodka and rinds have been combined for two weeks, strain liqueur through twice through two layers of cheesecloth. Place strained liqueur in a clean glass jar or into a few smaller bottles and store in the freezer. Makes about 1 quart of liqueur or four small jars.
— Kate Payne
How to start a food swap
No matter if you're a canner with 50 pints of triple berry jam or a homebrewer with 100 bottles of brown ale, you might be interested in meeting up with other food makers to swap homemade goods. Here's how to get started:
Decide if you want to limit the swap to your neighborhood, to people you already know or by the kind of food item you want to swap. (A salsa-making friend of mine is starting a salsa swap group so he and his wife don't have to eat all those jars of carrot chipotle salsa by themselves.) Other ideas for swap groups: frozen meals, homemade baby food, vegetable seeds, granola or breakfast bars.
Pick a date and place for the swap, and create an event invite on Facebook, Eventbrite or other event-organizing site. Make sure you clearly list the expectations of the swap; i.e., if everyone is supposed to bring the same number of goods to swap, or if there are food allergies or dietary restrictions of which to be respectful. Remind people to bring a bag or box to carry home their swapped items, and invite them to post what they are bringing.
If you know your guests, invite them directly by e-mail or phone. If the swap is open to the public, get the word out through Twitter, Facebook or any other word-of-mouth platform, such as a bulletin board at church or your favorite coffee shop. (Feel free to e-mail me about your swap, and I can help spread the word online.)
The day of the event, offer some light food items and drinks for people to nibble on while they swap goods. Even if you think everyone knows each other, it's a good idea to provide name tags just in case.
At Kate Payne's swaps, each good to be exchanged has a piece of paper that says what the item is and who made it. Guests write their names on the pieces of paper on the items they want first dibs on. When Payne gives the green light, the swapping begins.
Allow time for socializing before and after the official swap. The point isn't just to exchange goods but to get to know one another and enjoy each other's company.