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

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

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.

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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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