Emily Paster, who has contributed her posts about food and dining to oakpark.com, has just come out with a new book called “Food Swap.” You should buy the book (or bug the Oak Park Public Library to purchase a few copies). To provide reasons why you should do that, I chatted with Paster about the concept of food swapping, how it works and why you might like it.

1.    What is a food swap?

A food swap is a recurring event where home cooks, bakers, and gardeners come together to trade and barter their homemade and homegrown foods. No money changes hands and all the participants are individuals who trade items they made, or grew, themselves.

A typical food swap begins with participants arriving and setting up their items. For each different item you bring, you complete a “swap card,” which simply lists who you are, what the item is, the ingredients or any other important information — if it’s perishable or shelf-stable; vegan; gluten-free; contains nuts — as well as a space for making trade offers. The first part of the event is spent mingling, browsing, and sampling — people often bring samples, which usually results in more offers for them! At some point, the organizer announces that it’s time to swap, and then the actual trading begins. It can get a little frenzied! Some people stand by their items and field offers; others grab their items and go out in search of trades.

People who swap food enjoy it for so many reasons. First, you bring home delicious and varied items. It’s a terrific way to diversify your pantry and eat more homemade foods, the kind of foods that you might not make yourself. Sometimes you are even able to trade for unique or heirloom items that you could never buy in a store. Second, it’s very gratifying for a home cook or gardener who has put in a lot of time and effort honing their skills to encounter people outside their immediate circle who appreciate and desire their food. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, food swaps bring together people from all walks of life who share a love of food. You come for the food, but you return for the community.

2.   In what ways is “Food Swap” a valuable book and how will people use it?

“Food Swap” is a resource for anyone who wants to get involved in food swapping, be it as an organizer or a participant. It’s full of information on how to start a swap, grow an existing swap or simply attend a swap. I even offer suggestions on how to organize different kinds of swaps, such as meal swaps, harvest swaps or holiday swaps. But beyond that, it’s a great cookbook for anyone who loves DIY projects in the kitchen or enjoys giving edible gifts. Yes, the same kinds of food that make great swap items also make perfect gifts. And I give you plenty of tips on how to package and decorate your homemade foods to really impress the recipient.

3.    Swapping is as old as agriculture itself (as you say in the book), but what is it about the current socio-economic environment that makes it ripe for food swapping?

I think a few current trends have fed into the growth of the food swap movement. First, social media. In earlier times, neighbors who knew one another might trade milk for eggs, or zucchini for bread. But today, the Internet and social media connects food lovers who would never have reason to meet in person, because they are from different areas or in different stages of life, and a food swap allows them to engage in this type of age-old practice that used to be limited to friends or neighbors. Second, food swapping is the natural outgrowth of the DIY kitchen revolution that has led to a revival of heirloom skills like canning, fermentation, bread-baking, and vegetable gardening. DIY types and gardeners inevitably end up with more than their family can consume, and it tends to be a lot of one type of thing, be it jam or bread or tomatoes! A food swap allows those people to connect and get something of value in exchange for their extra food.

4.    How did you select the recipes to include in the book?

Every recipe in the book is inspired by something I saw at the Chicago Food Swap. I wanted to include a wide variety of foods, representative of the kinds of things you typically see at a food swap, and recipes for all different skill levels. So, you will find easy, no-cook projects suitable for beginners like vanilla rum extract, preserved lemons and flavored sugars, and salts, things a typical home cook might tackle like soups and baked goods; and some more challenging projects for the dedicated DIY type like quince paste, naan and preserved foods. As I mentioned, a lot of these recipes have applications beyond a food swap. The soups are great for feeding a crowd, the baked goods are perfect for bake sales and many of the DIY projects make stunning edible gifts.

5.    Some recipes in the book are for items that will last a while (for instance, syrups and preserved fruits) but others are for items with a limited shelf life (like frittatas and ricotta). As a general principle, would you say that swapping is best when you have items to trade that will last for weeks rather than days?

Swapping is best when you come home with a mix of items. By all means, bring home those muffins or cupcakes that you want to eat within a day or two. Trade for that soup or salad that will be perfect for lunch the next day. But if you end up with nothing but highly perishable items, you will struggle to eat them all before they go bad, and the whole point of the food swap is to minimize food waste. So, it’s also important to seek out items that will last in your fridge for a week or more, like a dip, drink syrup or salad dressing. And the shelf-stable items, like spice mixes or pickles, will keep the food swap love going for weeks and even months.

6.    In a swap, some items will be favorites and others may not be. How do you handle social situations where someone has made something that they really love…but that no one else at the swap really likes much at all?

That’s tough. Newcomers always worry that no one will want their items, but I have never seen anyone left out completely. But inevitably some items are more popular than others and saying no to a trade is part of the process. I try to remind people not to take it personally when someone declines a trade. One way to make sure that you get lots of offers is to bring more than one item to trade. That gives you more flexibility. Samples help too, especially if your item is unusual and people may be unfamiliar with it. Another tip: packaging! At a recent swap, there was a woman with pretty strawberry cupcakes, but she wasn’t getting any offers. I suggested that part of the problem was that she had not packaged her items: she just had a large platter of cupcakes. As a result, other swappers were not sure how many cupcakes they could expect in exchange for their item and might have had concerns about getting them home safely.

7.    What have you learned about people as a result of food swapping?

That they are amazing cooks! Honestly, I have been amazed and inspired by the skill and creativity displayed by the home cooks who come to the Chicago Food Swap. So many people all over Chicago are toiling away in their kitchens honing their skills and they do not have an audience outside their friends and families. I’m happy that the food swap has helped garner some recognition for these outstanding home cooks. 

8.    Not to sound too “deep,” but while compiling this book, what did you learn about yourself, who you are or the kind of person you want to be?

That I have a lot to say! In all seriousness, people sometimes tell me that I should open a restaurant or sell my homemade jams and pickles. But what I have learned by writing this book is that I would much prefer to teach people how to make their own delicious jam and pickles than to sell them a jar of my jam. I am happiest when I am sharing my skills in the kitchen and knowledge about food with others and learning from them in return. The food swap has given me a forum to do that. Writing this book has been another such forum. My niche in the culinary world is as a teacher and writer, not a business or restaurant owner. (Of course I have tremendous respect and admiration for chefs and makers of artisan food products and want to eat their food.) So, it is perhaps not surprising that I already am working on a second book.

9.    What is the best way to purchase your new book, “Food Swap“? Should people just go to Amazon, or is there a way youd prefer they buy it?

I always encourage people to shop local whenever possible. I hope that your local independent bookstore is carrying “Food Swap,” but if it is not, just ask them to order a copy for you. That will help get the book on their radar. Amazon is certainly convenient as well. However they buy it, if people enjoy the book, I hope that they will leave an online review. That kind of thing helps authors tremendously.

Join the discussion on social media!

David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...