Sunday, January 20, 2013

ready, set, swap!

Mayhem. Men and women running around with food products tucked under their arms, running up to strangers and haggling for other food items. Was it a run on the food supply before another apocalyptic weather disaster?

No.  It was a food swap.

Last Monday, I went over to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, ten jars of cinnamon-pear jam in tow in my canning pot. I was (very) early, on edge about finding a parking spot and feeling very much like a first date: anticipatory, nervous, highly aware of my own exaggeratedly awkward tendencies when confronted with strangers.  In a way, this was my first public date with food. I've had friends over to my house for dinner frequently, cooked for my family, brought food to my office. But friends and family and work colleagues are appreciative of the gesture of bringing food, and are uniformly nice about the food, whether it is one of my successful concoctions or one of my more "interesting" dishes. Dates, one hopes, are nice, but ultimately, they do not need to like you (or your jam).

So what is this food swap that had my confidence playing hide-and-seek? It's sort of like a homecook and foodie extravaganza. At this Philly Food Swap, about 50 people brought homemade foods and crafts to trade with each other. The rules are simple: bring something you want to trade, and when the hosts say "GO!", start trading.

The preparation, however, is complex, as is the strategizing. Each participant was set up either on a table or on top of the short bookshelves. These foodies know how to make their food look good - display boxes, posters, beautiful tags, nice packaging, and, best of all, samples. Ever wonder what it's like to taste 50 different artisanal products? Heaven. We got an hour to taste before we swapped, and I meandered about soaking in the variety of flavors and products. From the simple and scrumptious to the inspirationally unusual and delicious combinations, the tastes were a story map of what a good home cook can do.

Beyond the tasting, however, was the strategy: what do I want the most, and will anyone trade for my jam? And that was the part that had me nervous. I walked around, seeing cards on the table with the name of the product, and the name of an interested swapper underneath. Was my card getting full and would anyone take my jam home for the night?

I strolled with a fake casual air back to my corner to check my card, and... yes! There were people who wanted to trade! The organizers opened the swapping, and hungry foodies began swarming. Grabbing an armful of jams, I started following my fellow food lovers as they zoomed from table to table, offering and receiving gifts.  I scored with sauerkraut, preserved kumquats, homemade butter, sweet jams, spicy jam, hot peppers, orange-cardamom ice cream, fudge, and chicken-pork belly sausage.

Happy, sated, and exhausted, I packed my canning pot once more with this abundance, and headed back home. One week later, I'm still making my way through the jams, butters, and kumquats, though the fudge and ice cream were long gone by the next morning. Every time I open another container, I start smiling. Cooking and eating are wonderful, but add on the joy of sharing completely unique food that you couldn't find in a store? Food-lovers bliss.

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