Spring Cleaning for Food Lovers: It's Time for Food Swaps

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Trading old jam, rare seeds, and meat from the freezer is an unexpected pleasure—but be sure to obey the unwritten rules

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Early spring means different things in different places. In some regions it's called mud season. Elsewhere it's the fifth month of winter grief. In warmer climes, winter can be so mild and summer so hot that spring is little more than a fleeting end of tolerable weather. But everywhere with a winter significant enough to interrupt the growing season, early spring has a special meaning among local foodies. For cooks, gardeners, hunters, and mead-makers alike—for pretty much anyone—it's time for swapping.

Food swapping can add diversity to a stash that grows evermore homogenous as it dwindles. Last fall for example I made a surplus of applesauce, but ran out of carrots halfway through winter. If I could trade with someone who has carrots and no applesauce, we'd both diversify. This can make a big difference in the final weeks before the new growing season brings early crops like asparagus, radishes, spinach, and garlic flowers.

A cloud of suspicion had fallen upon that jar, and rightly so. The first rule of Swap Meat is that you trade only your own goods.

The clock is especially ticking for root crops like onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, beets, and squash. (Squash, while technically not a root crop, didn't get the memo, and stores fine alongside the true root crops.) If your root crops haven't gone bad already, they will soon. It would be wise to trade your surplus while it still has value.

You don't have to be root-cellar hardcore to benefit from food swaps. If you show up at a food swapping party with homemade pies, you might score some homemade beer. Depending on the crowd you run with, food swapping parties can resemble a cocktail party, a potluck, a rager, a garage sale, or some unique combination of them all.

In the wild, ungulate-laden hills of Montana, where hippies hunt and vegetarians have been known to eat venison if they know who killed it, I've been fortunate to attend the annual Swap Meat, which takes place around this time of year.

Swap Meaters are not limited to trading meat. Pickles, jam, honey, frozen veggies, and aging root crops are all fair game.

Just be prepared to explain the pedigree of your goods. I remember one guy describing the meat he'd brought as "found in the freezer after my roommate moved out." He also mentioned something about it possibly being roadkill. He had brought nothing else to trade, and got zero action.

Another time, someone brought girlfriend-made pickles.

"These green tomato pickles are actually [girlfriend's]," he said, "but they..."

"Oh no! Those are bad," objected someone with intimate knowledge of [girlfriend's] pickles, from across the room.

Murmurs swept the Swap Meat circle.

"No, these aren't the bad ones," the pickle purveyor protested.

"[Girlfriend] put ginger in her pickles so they'd be good in martinis," the protester continued. "But we tried them and my God, they were eff-ed."

"This is a different batch," the pickle man softly protested.

A cloud of suspicion had fallen upon that jar, and rightly so. The first rule of Swap Meat is that you trade only your own goods. That way you know exactly what it is and where it's been.

You can be sure that more than just goods will change hands at a food swap. Tips on gardening, preservation, and cooking will be traded as well, plus phone numbers, gossip, and hunting stories. When swappers run into each other months later at the farmers' market, you can expect updates on swapped goods. Thus, community bonds are strengthened.

I just attended a swap of a different sort: a seed exchange in Espanola, New Mexico. Spring is the obvious season for seed trading, because it's the time to plant them.

The event started out ceremonially, with Native American song and blessings. Dirt from around the Southwest was mixed with water from distant parts, along with seeds brought from all corners. Everyone took home a handful of the mix to plant. Then, guitar and accordion players played upbeat riffs while participants wandered among the seed tables. There were envelopes for putting seeds in, and pens for jotting pertinent details on the envelopes. Behind the tables, seed growers watched their seeds disappear, talking shop with their seeds' new and prospective parents.

dudeseeds_sized.jpg Most of these seeds were homegrown and home-saved, but many farmers also brought seed they'd purchased years ago from seed catalogs. Rather than letting this old seed go bad in the barn, these exchangers hoped to send their seeds to new gardens while they still had life to germinate.

The seed exchange opened first to those who actually brought seeds—thus the "exchange." After the exchangers had taken care of their business, the action was opened to the public. I showed up with nothing but open hands, and when I left my jacket pockets looked like squirrel cheeks. Corn, beans, squash, and chile pepper were the most common seeds offered, this being New Mexico, but there were plenty of others too. My loot included Tarahumara sunflower, Hopi blue corn, Inca rainbow sweet corn, red beans, parsley, borage, chimayo chile, yin-yang beans, and seeds for what a little girl promised are the juiciest carrots ever.

Amid the festive atmosphere were serious conversations about topics from tomato blight to water rights, while seed industry consolidation was the elephant in the room. The largest genetically modified crop corporation in the world, Monsanto, is also the world's largest organic seed company—and largest seed company period—thanks to recent strategic acquisitions. Because of consolidation like this in the seed industry, thousands of seed varieties are being dropped from circulation. Seed savers maintain an important reservoir of special seed varieties that would be invaluable if disaster were to strike, and will improve your quality of life in the meantime.

Exchanging seeds is the antithesis of seed industry consolidation, and trading food is a thrilling ride beyond the bounds of the currency system. You can't eat money, and it won't grow if you stick it in the ground. So as you prepare to grow and eat real food this summer, don't forget to swap around your leftovers from last year.

Images (top to bottom): louisathomson/flickr, Ari LeVaux

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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