West of the Loop:
I know we say it every time, but the October Chicago Food Swap
was, without a doubt, the best one yet. It was an exciting mix of old
friends and giddy first-time swappers. The offerings were, by far, more
diverse than we have ever seen. The creativity that is going on behind
closed doors in kitchens across Chicago blows me away. It is time to
shed some light on the hard work and dedication that Chicago home cooks
and gardeners bring to their craft. That is what the Chicago Food Swap
is all about.
Our host for the event was Pinch Spice Market
located right on Milwaukee Ave in Bucktown. Funny story: my husband’s
and my first house was right around the corner from this shop. That was
the house we lived in from shortly after we were married until right
before JR was born. I can assure you that from 2002 to 2006, there was
no gourmet spice shop around the corner from our house. But the
neighborhood has changed for the better. Pinch Spice Market has a
beautiful, open space with rows and rows of tantalizing spices,
including some unique proprietary blends. I was inspired to buy some of
the Ethiopian Berbere having just read Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes Chef.
Owners Mike and Thomas were gracious hosts, even as the swappers soon
filled every nook and cranny of the shop with their homemade creations.
Yes, this swap was by far the most crowded and chaotic. One
first-time swapper described it as “overwhelming.” We had close to 40
people and some of the swappers brought a lot to swap. One development
that was exciting was the greater amount and variety of fresh produce
available, including fresh eggs from swapper Sarah. I didn’t get any of the eggs, but I was able to swap Sarah for six Green Zebra tomatoes. Jim and Cheryl of Ready Jam Farms
in Marengo, IL brought some of their homegrown organic produce as well
as baked goods and jams. I scored some broccoli, onions, two kinds of
hot peppers, and Swiss chard for a bottle of my plum brandy, which
Cheryl told me she plans to give to her Hungarian mother. Swapper Jo
brought some of her just-picked kale that was packaged in charming brown
paper wrappers. I believe I spied some apples and some fresh herbs as
well, but the truth is, there was so much going on, I was not able to
scope out all of the offerings.
In addition to all the beautiful vegetables, there was a tremendous
variety of prepared foods. Fall flavors definitely seemed to be a theme,
as I saw lots of cranberry and pumpkin goodies. Drink syrups and
alcoholic infusions were another popular item. I saw pumpkin vodka,
sasparilla, Jamaican sorrel syrup — which was a revelation — and spiced
ginger syrup, in addition to my Hungarian plum brandy. As always, there
were plenty of food in jars, to borrow a phrase from my friend Marisa McClellan,
from jams to flavored mustards to salsas to pickles. I was very excited
to go home with some pickled fennel, which I am planning to save for my
Thanksgiving relish tray. Sadly, I missed the blueberry aigre-doux,
which was also by Erielle.
Baked goods are always big at the Chicago food swap and this time was
no exception. I couldn’t resist the fragrant savory monkey bread that
was on offer. I also saw a gorgeous wheat boule. And naturally, there
were plenty of sweet treats. By now my kids expect me to come home from a
food swap with something they can eat for dessert that night. Last
night, I managed to come home with Michelle‘s S’mores bars and an adorable S’mores-making kit complete with homemade marshmallows and graham crackers.
Something that was new this time: dinner food! My co-founder Chef Druck
brought homemade soup, including chicken stock and sweet potato bisque.
Although we had never actually swapped with each other before, I was
very excited to trade her some of my Damson plum paste, which she said
her husband would love, for one of the jars of bisque. Reader, I ate it
for lunch today with half of the monkey bread. As if that weren’t
enough, I traded one of the bottles of plum brandy for a quiche! Yes, a
whole spinach-Gruyere quiche with a homemade crust from Erin. Guess
what’s for dinner tonight? That’s right, practically my whole food day
was courtesy of the Chicago Food Swap. What’s more, I combined the
tomatoes and some of the onions and peppers I got at the swap into two
jars of spicy salsa. Maybe I will even bring it to swap next time. It’s
like a second-generation swap.
In truth, the best thing about yesterday’s swap to me was not all the
wonderful food but rather the excitement and buzz in the room. We had a
large number of first-time swappers and they were all amazed by the
crowd and the available goodies. So many of them came up to me to
express their joy at having found this group and asking when we could do
it again. As Thomas, one of the owners of Pinch Spice Market said to
me: we are really onto something here. The demand is already exceeding
our capacity to plan these events and to find spaces big enough to hold
everyone who wants in. I feel that we are riding a wave that is just
beginning to rise. Who knows where it can lead? Chef Druck and I are
ambitious thinkers and we have ideas. Ideas like a food swap and potluck
at a farm. Our swappers have ideas too, like a recipe exchange or maybe
even a cookbook. The most important thing to me is that we continue to
shine a spotlight on the home cooks and gardeners who dedicate
tremendous energy and creativity to their love of food. We want to bring
people like that together and to let them inspire one another.
Speaking of next time, the December swap will be on Sunday December 2 at 3 pm. Our host will be the Peterson Garden Project,
which has an education space at 4642 N. Francisco in Ravenswood Manor.
As always, it is free to join in the swapping, but we do ask that you
register in advance. Registration has not yet opened for the December
swap, but we will open it soon. These swaps fill up notoriously quickly
so don’t be left out. Follow us on Facebook or get on our email list by sending your address to chicagofoodswap at gmail dot com. I hope to see many of you there.