PORTLAND, Ore. — They came armed with berries and honey and black licorice, sweet strawberry lemonade and lush lavender caramel, shoulders sagging from the weight of a dozen glass canning jars or boxes piled with small mountains of baked goods. And as they gathered, there were three simple rules:
Be fair. Be nice. And please, do it yourself.
This is food swapping, a growing — if slightly underground — trend in which home cooks can substitute the “Y” in DIY with someone else. Bring something you’ve made, swap it for something somebody else made.
No money changes hands, but commerce is in the air. Ask them, and food swappers will tell you they are simply recreating a system that predates the birth of currency, a return to a short-term bartering marketplace. It also happens to be a fine way to enjoy some of the perks of having a small kitchen-based business without the regulatory and commercial hassles of truly setting up shop.
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The food swaps operate in a gray area in Oregon (and quite possibly most places they pop up). While legislation called the Farm-Direct Bill allows some unlicensed food production by farmers that grow the food themselves, the law is murkier on unlabeled products, alcohol and most additives.
In New York, Austin and now Portland, swaps have been organized with regularity. The first to promote itself publicly was in Brooklyn in the mid-2000s. By 2010, Portland had its own quiet swap and by this summer, the number of regulars that meet monthly in a culinary school kitchen swelled to 30.
Of course, this does leave the safety onus on the swapper, something PDX Food Swap organizer Bethany Rydmark says is worth it. “No one’s buying or selling anything, so it’s more like neighbors gifting to each other,” she said during a Portland swap held in June.
The kitchen at the Art Institute of Portland’s International Culinary School was sweltering from a wall of cooking stoves with low flames and the constant motion of bodies: Swappers eyeing each other’s jams and jellies, sniffing at homemade soaps and knocking back shots of rhubarb and raspberry vodka.
The culinary school kitchen is composed of eight long steel tables and two aisles, with room for about four swappers each. Where samples were offered, lines formed. Everyone wore nervous smiles.
For home preservers and urban gardeners who grow or process on a small scale, food swaps are a place to offload abundance, as well as try ideas. “It’s a place to test-run,” said Margaret Spring, who co-founded the original food swap in the mid-2000s in Brooklyn, New York. “You find out what works, and how your tastes compare to other people. If you keep bringing good food, people will remember.”
Though regional differences apply, the rules generally adhere to the silent-auction method. Swappers get a half-hour at the start to peruse others’ wares. They’ll jot down an offer or more broadly pitch “anything I’ve got.” The art of the swap is in making reasonable offers while dangling the potential for a better deal. Two jars of pickles for that liter of bone-marrow broth? What about three pickle jars and you throw in the lavender bunch?
Swappers tend to fall into three general types. The first brings a massive mishmash of goods — homegrown beets, lemon cakes, basil pesto — and tries to sell everything. The second brings just a couple high-value items and trades selectively. The third shows you the bounty of the season, perhaps with a crate of plum tomatoes and the various jars of spaghetti sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa, pickles and canned tomatoes made from it.
For some, the swaps serve as a kind of incubator for a food growing and processing operation. That’s what happened to Rae Rotindo when she brought her hand-cut garlic powder to a Brooklyn swap in 2010.
“Most people brought sweet stuff, and there I was bringing stinky garlic,” Rotindo said. But it was a hit, and eventually she quit her job as an environmental project manager and now runs Rockerbox Spice. “Bringing it to the swaps was a good jumping off point.”