Is it weird to eat food made by people you don’t know? Of course, we do it all the time in restaurants. But at least we know that restaurants are inspected by the state and local health departments and there are enough people working in a restaurant kitchen to deter any one of the cooks from trying to poison the patrons. So, my question really is: is it weird to eat food made by a home cook that you don’t know? It may be weird, but in this day and age of food blogs, crowd-sourced cookbooks, food swaps and social media, it is an increasingly common practice. Food has always brought family and friends together. Now, the love of food and cooking is bringing together complete strangers in ways that are new and either exciting or scary, depending on your point of view.
Earlier this year, I saw a Tweet from a Southern California jam-maker, Kevin West, lamenting the fact that he had not seen Damson plums at his farmers’ market all summer. That same week, I had spied the very first Damson plums of the season at the Oak Park Farmers Market. I replied to Kevin’s Tweet with a report of my Damson plum sighting. After some back-and-forth about regional specialties, I proposed that Kevin and I exchange some of our homemade fruit preserves. I would send him some of my Damson plum jam and he could send me something he made with a California fruit that is not available in Illinois. Kevin suggested quince, which is a fruit I don’t know at all. I agreed eagerly.
It took us a few months to actually execute our plan, but last week, two beautiful pounds of Kevin’s quince paste arrived at my door. (I hope my Damson plum jam arrived safely at Kevin’s house and that he is enjoying it. Kevin has been featured in O magazine and has a cookbook coming out next year, so it is a little intimidating to send him food.) Although Kevin and I have never met, receiving the rosy pink quince paste was like getting a care package from a faraway foodie friend. I was so tickled by the surprise and the kindness-of-strangers aspect of it all. And of course the quince paste was exquisite. My family has been enjoying it for days. Zuzu declared it was like nothing she had ever tasted before. I even served some of the quince paste to my coffee klatsch as an accompaniment to cheddar buttermilk biscuits. (The only thing I knew about quince paste was that the Spanish serve it with Manchego, so that’s why I chose to serve mine with cheese biscuits. It worked quite well.)
If you think that exchanging food with a complete stranger halfway across the country is weird, how about exchanging food with complete strangers from your own city? That’s the idea behind food swaps. Food swaps are the latest foodie craze. They are happening all over the country from L.A. to Austin to Philadelphia and everywhere in between. In a food swap, home cooks, bakers, and gardeners get together on a somewhat regular basis to trade their homemade and homegrown edible creations. Along the way, you meet like-minded folks and get inspired. There is no question that it is a leap of faith to try jam or bread or granola made by someone you just met. The health department is not inspecting everyone’s kitchen. But, personally I like to believe in the goodness of my fellow home cooks. And I love to try new things and show off my own homemade goodies.
So, naturally, I am helping to organize a food swap here in the Chicago area. This city has an amazing food blogger community and I think that the food swap movement will catch on here. Our very first swap will take place on December 4 at 4 pm. You can register here; follow us on Facebook here and read our Tweets here. (It’s free to participate but pre-registration is required.) The December swap will be followed by a holiday cookie tasting so that everyone can get to know one another better and swap ideas during this season of baking. Our host for the event is the super-funky alternative craft boutique Pretty Little Things in Forest Park. Pretty Little Things is all about showcasing unique and handmade goods, so the food swap felt like a natural fit with their mission. Forest Park may seem like a bit of a haul for you Chicago folk, but it is easily accessible on the El or by Metra. Plus Forest Park is home to a great shopping and dining district so it is worth a trip.
I will be bringing some of my most exotic canned goods, like curried apple chutney, this green tomato salsa and maybe some strawberry balsamic jam to the food swap. I am dying to see what other swappers bring. Hope to see many of you there!