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Chicago Food Swap Is the Place to Trade, Not Buy, Homemade Foods and Goods

By Patty Wetli | September 17, 2013 8:26am
 Chicago Food Swap is the place to trade, not buy, homemade foods and goods.
Chicago Food Swap
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RAVENSWOOD MANOR — Wanna trade a cupcake for a jar of Croatian truffle oil?

Bartering made a comeback Sunday in Ravenswood Manor during the September gathering of the Chicago Food Swap, held at the Peterson Garden Project Learning Center. Participants were free to trade anything they could make, grow or forage.

"People love homemade food — so much so that they take time to make things others would just buy. But no one person can make everything," said Emily Paster, founder of the Chicago Food Swap. "People have very different skills and interests."

Laura Hine learned about the swap while taking a jam-making class. Turns out, spreadable fruit wasn't her forte, but bartering piqued her interest.

"We went online and said, 'This so has our name all over it,'" said Hine, who makes her own yogurt.

She and 15-year-old daughter Emmie brought packages of macarons — meringue-based cookies filled with buttercream or fruit spread  —  to their inaugural swap and were looking to trade for cultured butter and miso salad dressing.

"There's so many things I wouldn't think to make," the elder Hine said. "I'd much rather bake something and swap it."

Jen Risen, another first-time swapper, loves to cook and host dinner parties.

"I thought it would be nice to see what other people are making," said Risen, who was in the midst of trading a Mexican Chocolate S'Mores mini-pie for a jar of red pepper jelly and paprika-dusted flatbread.

Newbies quickly learned there's a definite art to swapping.

The first portion of every swap involves participants circulating around the venue, getting a good look at — and frequently a sample taste of — the wares available for trading.

When Paster essentially calls out "ready, set, swap," a semi-orderly free-for-all ensues.

"I staked out what I wanted," said Nicole Montgomery, who was attending her first swap. "I had a total plan and strategy. I moved my table closer to the two things I wanted most — it's like getting a good parking space."

Experienced swapper Maribeth Jirgal typically goes after the items she wants first, and then returns to her own table to entertain offers.

"Every swap is worked out by the individuals," Paster said. "The marketplace sort of determines the value."

She encourages rookies to the swap to package their items in the smallest amount possible to allow for greater flexibility.

It's much easier to trade two cupcakes for a jar of jam than to find an equivalent swap for an entire cake or quiche, she said.

For swappers, the rewards include the opportunity to expand their culinary horizons.

"That sticky rice cake — I never would have seen that" outside of the swap, Julie King said. A veteran of several swap meets King herself was the purveyor of some wildly popular "apple pie" caramel-dipped Granny Smiths.

In addition, acknowledgement from a like-minded community of people passionate about good food, all striving to promote handmade food as being within reach of most home cooks, is worth its weight in dollars and cents, Paster said.

"This gives them a little bit of a larger audience," she said.

Paster organized the first Chicago Food Swap in December 2011, having been inspired by BK Swappers in Brooklyn and a basement full of jars of jam — "more than we could ever eat."

Early events were held in the suburbs — Paster hails from River Forest — but the swap has since found several rotating homes within Chicago proper. Though some swappers hail from as far away as Indiana and Wisconsin, Paster has learned "my city people aren't going to Elgin."

Businesses donate the use of their space, and registering for a swap is free. Each event typically features 30-50 swappers, chosen on a strictly first-come, first-served basis.

"It's always very diverse," Paster said. "We have a huge sort of community of veterans — once you do it once you're kind of hooked — but there are always new people."

Registration is now open for the October swap, scheduled for 4-6 p.m. Oct. 6 at Lincoln Square's new Savory Spice Shop.