While most of us stock our kitchens from grocery stores or farmers markets this time of year, hundreds of Chicagoans have found another way to fill their larders--by trading homemade treats at Chicago Food Swaps.
Last month, at a little store in Oak Park, dozens of amateur cooks showed up with boxes of pastries and pickles and hearts full of expectations.
Ian Fecke-Stoudt started the event with several little servings of chipotle peanuts, pickled red onions, vegan dog treats, saffron salts and double chocolate ginger snaps.
But by the time the event was over, the Humboldt Park vegan’ had his bags jammed full of lot more.
From WBEZ Chicago, Chewing the Fat is a weekly podcast with food journalists Louisa Chu and Monica Eng. Together they tackle cooking, dining, culture food policy, culinary characters and more.
“We got pickled mushrooms, jam and mustard, pickled ramps, sunflower seed butter, focaccia, almond milk, vegan chocolate peanut butter fudge, apple tahini, chia pudding, mango coconut muesli and lots of other stuff,” he reported.
Fecke-Stoudt is part of Chicago’s enthusiastic food swapping community. They’re a group of friendly do-it-yourselfers who meet at different locations to trade their wares each month. Some are former kitchen pros, but most just have a passion for cooking (sometimes too much) and want to share what they have. West of the Loop blogger Emily Paster said she decided to launch the swap a few years ago, after reading about one in Philadelphia.
“I’m kind of that person with the basement full of jams and pickles, more than any family could eat,” she admitted, “ And so as soon as I read about it I thought ‘I have to do that because then I could actually do something with all this jam and my husband will stop giving me a hard time’.” The May event was a specialized vegan swap, but the offerings are usually all over the map. And Paster says that this helps home cooks fill in their culinary gaps.
“So I’m a big canner,” she said. “But I’m scared of yeast. Like I can’t do yeast bread, too scary. So I love to come in and get some amazing artisan bread.”
But for swapper Linsey Herman, it’s also about meeting new people and trying new things.
“I like the community aspect and I like the idea that some people take the idea of the swap very seriously,” the former professional cook said. “There was a family who are not vegan but studied up on vegan cuisine and they took some really interesting risks and they had great results with a a fudge and a seitan. You do get to try a cornucopia of products and you never know what people are going to bring.”
But what about food safety? Paster says that swappers are instructed to use their best hygienic practices but she warns that there are no guarantees.
“If you’re the kind of person who is sort of skeeved out by the idea of eating food someone else prepared it may not be for you,” Paster said. “I think some people take comfort in the fact that you get to talk to the people who made it and so it’s like going to the farmers market in that regard. You can ask the questions if you do have dietary restrictions or an allergy. But it may not be for everyone. If you are super strict vegan or have celiac disease, it may not be for you. We would do our best to accommodate you, but it is a little bit of an assumption of risk.”
Although it varies by state, food swaps aren’t regulated by health or business authorities in Illinois. They technically operate as private get-togethers where no money changes hands. And while the concept may seem weird and novel to Chicagoans, it couldn’t be older. In fact, trading for food was one of the earliest forms of food procurement. And it’s never gone out of style in many rural areas.
Tara O’Loughlin comes Northwest Indiana into the Chicago swaps, where her turkey and duck eggs are kind of no big deal.
“But the duck egg seem to be so popular here,” she said displaying her last dozen of the large eggs great for pastry and noodlemaking, “People really have gone crazy over them. That’s why it was fun to meet Emily here and meet people who love duck eggs so much.”
So how does a food swap work? Each month (it went monthly last year) Paster posts the location and date of the next swap on the Chicago Food Swap site. Folks register to attend and the list is closed when it reaches capacity (this month at about 70). Once there, swappers set up at tables and browse and sample during the first 30 minutes.
When Paster gives the start signal, “things get a little crazy,” she says. “It’s like letting the horses out of the gate."
Some people stand by their goods fielding offers while others wander around making deals. Most of these deals go through but some don’t. Fecke-Stoudt explains that, as a vegan, trades can be tricky.
“Sometimes people want our kale chips because they’re paleo,” he said, “but they have something with lots of meat and other animal byproducts and...”
Other deals go sour if one swapper feels the others product isn’t worth as much.“So sometimes we’ll trade two small things for one big thing,” Fecke-Stoudt said.
For those thinking of attending their first swap, Paster offers a list of tips on her site. And if you want to be the belle of the swap, she suggests going savory.
“There is often a heavy emphasis on cupcakes, brownies, quick breads and caramels and they are often too good to pass up,” she said. “But for that reason savory does very well. If people bring soups or tabouleh or little mini quiches that they could eat for lunch the next day, those are very hot.”
If you ask 10 swappers about their best food trade, you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Gena Boehm of Libertyville, said she had this very discussion around the dinner table the other night.
“The kids said that it was red velvet cup cakes,” Boehm said. “My son loved some preserved peaches we got last summer and my husband and I thought we had some really amazing bread one time last year. It’s always different. If you ask me six months from now it will be something else.”
The Chicago Food Swap will be held at Sur La Table in downtown Chicago on June 29. This gives you just enough time to perfect those mini quiches, that cabbage kimchi or mango muesli recipe you always wanted to swap and share.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at email@example.com