The way crowds convened around Melonie Carter at the most recent D.C. Food Swap, you’d have thought she was giving away iPhones. Carter, a College Park, Md., resident who operates a small catering company, was dishing out samples of her handmade Sriracha and her chipotle toum, a Lebanese garlic-based dipping sauce.
“She brought the toum last time and it went like hotcakes,” says Jess Schreibstein, who founded the D.C. Food Swap (dcfoodswap.org) last September as a way to support local food economies and connect cooking enthusiasts.
“Here, your food is your currency,” says Schreibstein, who finds this cash-free model more inclusive than a traditional market. “Some people invest in fancy packaging and unique ingredients, and some buy a can of chickpeas and bring hummus that cost them $5. Anyone who wants to participate can.”
Swappers display five to 20 individual portions of their goods on tables, along with a bid sheet. In silent-auction fashion, attendees peruse the selections and make offers. After an hour of sampling and chatting, everyone returns to their base.
What happens next calls to mind the floor of the New York Stock Exchange: harried members track down bidders and either accept an offer or haggle until an agreement is reached. At the close of the most recent swap, held at an Adams Morgan apartment in July, two satisfied swappers clinked Mason jars of pickled carrots and toasted with a “Cheers.”
Ideally, everyone leaves with as much food as they brought. “I’m usually not very good at the negotiating part,” says Carter, whose 18 jars of Sriracha and toum netted her 15 items by the end of the event, including granola, jam, cookies and relish. “I usually just say yes and afterwards I go, ‘Oh, man, I should have waited for better offers.’ ”
For many, the bimonthly swaps satiate a culinary curiosity their day job can’t. “I joined the swap because I love to cook,” says Ashley Talley, a geographer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For this swap, her first, she brought a blueberry jam made from berries she hand-picked with her mother. Shelu Patel, who offered a selection of hand-blended teas, says that participating in the swap is “completely different” from her job as a program manager for an IT system.
Schreibstein herself works full-time as the government affairs representative in NPR’s policy and representation department. She and swap co-organizers Tanya Fey and Liz Kruman hope the swap will connect like-minded people. Judging by the group’s popularity (registration for the most recent event filled up in 45 minutes), they may be on to something.
Last month, the D.C. Food Swap announced plans for a pen pal-style exchange between the members of the D.C. Food Swap, the Portland Preservation Society and the Brooklyn Swappers. Slots for the food-by-mail program are gone, but the next food swap is scheduled for Sept. 29. Registration starts Sept. 3.
Despite the demand, Schreibstein is reluctant to open the event to more than 30 participants for fear a larger group would diminish the intimacy.
“The food swap is less about the food and more about the people and their stories,” she says. “Being any larger would make it feel more like a marketplace than a social gathering.”