On the tables were colorful knots of beet fettuccine noodles, pickled cauliflower, and locally foraged pink pepper. There were jars of rose jelly, blood orange shrub syrup, homemade harissa, even small-batch olive oil. Are these the eclectic offerings of some hidden ethnic grocery? An epicurean mail-order catalog? A clandestine supper club?
This is a Los Angeles food swap, where a cornucopia of edibles are picked, prepared, and packaged in nearby kitchens, backyards and sidewalks, and exchanged at a lively, free marketplace between likeminded locals.
"People have been doing this for centuries," says Emily Ho, who started this particular L.A. food swap community. But recently, a wave of swaps organized via Facebook and Twitter has been sweeping the nation. Now there are six ongoing swaps in the Los Angeles area from Pasadena to North Hollywood, where in any given month you might find vanilla-infused whiskey being traded for Sriracha-flavored salt, or cherry balsamic vinegar for spicy homemade kimchi.
At last month's swap, held at the crafty Silver Lake boutique ReForm School, about 30 swappers splayed their goods across tables, offering samples and sharing recipes. Each swap is different based on what's in season--March, for some reason, is good for marmalades, says Ho--or emerging food trends (currently, making homemade bitters is hot). The environment is made even more festive by the swappers' marketing efforts. "L.A. gets really into its packaging," says Ho, pointing to the colorful fabrics and letterpressed labels that decorated the boxes, bottles and jars.
Although the idea of showing up with a bag of backyard Meyer lemons and leaving with the equivalent of a gourmet food basket may seem daunting to a newcomer, Ho says never fear: "It always works out." Attendees range from home bakers and backyard gardeners to bee rescuers and master canners, with everyone willing to trade.
"There's a great deal of openness and honesty about recipes, what worked and what didn't," says swapper Emily Dell, who makes marmalades and chutneys with produce from Food Forward, which organizes large-scale picks of local fruit orchards and donates the proceeds to nonprofits. Mary Wolf, who bakes inventive pastries like four-cheese artichoke biscuits, agrees. "I am constantly inspired by what the food swappers bring to the table and there is an overwhelming sense of support and community when we get together," she says. In fact, Wolf made her first-ever sale of fig goat cheese scones due to the first L.A. swap. "I got a great response to my items and that gave me the push I needed to keep pursuing my passion," she says. Now she's prepping her business at Miss Treats and hopes to launch into full-scale production by 2013.
In many cases the swaps have acted as small business incubators for swappers hoping to get their brands off the ground. Katie Kildow's jams and pickles were so popular that she started a small batch preserves business, From the Robin's Nest. "I'm now at some farmers markets around L.A. and am working on some great projects," she says. "I've gotten to meet some other inspiring entrepreneurs through the swaps as well."
Even Ho left her job as a bibliography and thesaurus editor at the Getty to pursue her own food-related endeavors. Recently, with Austin-based swapper Kate Payne, Ho launched a new online community, the Food Swap Network, that hopes to connect and inspire similar swaps across the country. The site has listings of swaps across the U.S., as well as resources like tips on where to hold the swaps, how many people to include and how to publicize the events. In the future, Ho says she might like to do a Kickstarter to help expand the site to include things like a forum for people to exchange best practices. A recent story in The Bold Italic chronicled a swap in San Francisco and included some recipes from swappers, also an eventual goal of Ho's.
Of course, growth could come with growing pains. Even though the city of L.A. has recently started allowing urban farmers to legally sell their produce, the informality of a large-scale swap might not pass muster with the health department. But by staying small, not selling the goods, and keeping it community-focused--events are limited to 30 swappers--Ho says she hopes the city will recognize this is more akin to a dinner party than a restaurant.
At the moment, however, the swaps are growing organically. After the February event, a couple was inspired to start their own in Orange County, which is exactly the goal of the swaps, says Ho: to find fellow bakers, gardeners and foragers in your community. She envisions a swap in every neighborhood, dotting the landscape like farmers markets. "The more the merrier, especially in a place like L.A.," says Ho. "You want to meet these people near you."
The next LA Food Swap will be in April, and interested parties can join the mailing list or watch Twitter or Facebook for details closer to the time. Or visit the Food Swap Network to find a swap near you.
[Photos by A.Rios/R.E]