What’s the best way for a food lover to celebrate her birthday? With a food swap, of course! This past Sunday was both my 40th birthday and the November Chicago Food Swap which took place at The Chopping Block, Chicago’s premier recreational cooking school. Given that the Chicago Food Swap has been my passion project for the past two years, holding a swap felt a fitting way to celebrate my entry into a new decade. (It also helped that my husband had taken me to a festive and fabulous birthday dinner at Girl and the Goat the night before.)

I was beyond thrilled when Lisa from The Chopping Block reached out to me about hosting a food swap at the school’s Merchandise Mart location. Having attended a fundraiser in that space, I knew well how beautiful and spacious it was. The abundant counters and tables in The Chopping Block’s large kitchen classrooms meant that swappers would have ample room to display their items and still move around freely. In addition, the staff at The Chopping Block are experts at throwing events, so I knew that they would be easy to work with.

But the actual event exceeded my expectations. I am used to running swaps by my self: checking in attendees, setting up the tables, answering questions, taking pictures, and trouble-shooting — all while trying to swap my own items. (It is probably time for me to give up trying to swap but I can’t bring myself to do it.) Needless to say, it is usually a hectic and stressful experience while I try to be in five places at once. This time, the spacious kitchens at The Chopping Block were clean and ready when I arrived and a registration table was set up for me outside the kitchen. There were plenty of hooks for swappers to hang their coats and bags and a fresh pot coffee brewing. Lisa even lent me two of her staff to help swappers with their heavy items. The whole event ran like clockwork.

So, it is perhaps not surprising that many people told me that this was the best Chicago Food Swap yet. With the logistics taken care of, the swappers were just able to mingle, sample and chat in a relaxed way. Veteran swappers reconnected with one another while welcoming new swappers into the fold. Everyone snuck upstairs to The Chopping Block’s retail store to shop for cookware and kitchen gadgets of all kinds. The event was such a tremendous success that I am already planning another event at The Chopping Block for 2014. Thankfully, Lisa is willing to have us back!

The offerings at this swap were incredibly varied and creative. If you wanted sweets, there were multiple kinds of caramels, peanut butter buckeyes, fudge, toffee, doughnuts, marshmallows and numerous kinds of cookies and brownies. I think I managed to bring home some of each. You could definitely tell it was fall from the number of items featuring pumpkin, cranberry and apple! We even had Jim and Cheryl from Ready Jam Farms bring a huge assortment of pumpkins, gourds and winter squash.  Some swappers drove all the way from northwest Indiana with farm-fresh chicken and duck eggs. A delightful young couple came with homemade bacon in several flavors and fresh pasta. (I had to pass on the bacon but snagged the pasta.)  The fermentos were there in full force with sauerkraut, kombucha and pickles. The bakers brought pretzels, foccacia and challah. I saw fabulous drink syrups ranging from root beer to pumpkin spice. Veteran swappers Pamela brought Korean-style sushi and kimchi. I saw numerous kinds of soup. And in a first for the Chicago Food Swap, Sabrina brought homemade dog treats — and they were a huge hit!

I traded quince paste, green tomato relish, herb salt and vanilla rum extract and came home with two kinds of caramels, buckeyes, cookies and brownies, pumpkin poppers, sushi, two kinds of soup, pretzels, corn and black bean salad, cherry syrup and pumpkin spice syrup, pasta, fresh herbs and three squashes. Not bad!

After such a great event, the enthusiasm for the December Chicago Food Swap is high. The December swap will be hosted by blogger and culinary educator Joelen Tan of What’s Cooking, Chicago. Registration for the swap, which will take place on December 7 — yes, a Saturday this time — opened this morning and is already over 3/4 full. So if you would like to come to the next swap — and why wouldn’t you — sign up ASAP. December will mark the second anniversary of the Chicago Food Swap and we will be ready to celebrate!

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Emily Paster

Emily Paster is a freelance writer and mother of two living in River Forest. She writes about food and parenting on her website, West of the Loop. Emily's print work appears frequently in Chicago Parent...