The people began arriving a few minutes before 3, women in their 20s, moms with kids in tow. They carried boxes full of homemade creations: loaves of bread, sweets, exotic jams, drink syrups, flavored mustards, pickled vegetables, and even homegrown tomato plants.
As the cooks and gardeners began admiring each other's offerings, the questions began: How did you make that? How do you use it? Would you like to trade for one of mine?
Trading is the name of the game at the Chicago Food Swap. Such food swaps were one of 2011's hottest food trends and are only becoming more popular. At a food swap, home cooks and gardeners trade their homemade and homegrown food stuffs. No money changes hands.
Food swaps are the natural outgrowth of the expanding do-it-yourself movement causing people all over America to raise backyard chickens, plant vegetable gardens and revive the lost art of home food preservation. With social media, it has become easier than ever for DIY cooks to find one another.
Last December, my neighbor, Vanessa Druckman, and I decided it was time to bring the food swap trend to Chicago. As food bloggers, we wanted to meet other people as passionate about food as we are and see what other home cooks were whipping up.
We started small with only a dozen swappers at our first event. By our fourth swap, we had to cap the number of participants at 40 and turn people away.
At the Chicago Food Swap, swappers set up their offerings and fill out a swap card, listing its ingredients and suggested uses. The first half-hour is spent mingling and checking out the offerings. If a swapper sees something interesting, he or she suggests a trade on the swap card for that item. After 45 minutes, the actual swapping begins. All swaps are negotiated individually. Luckily, it usually works out so that everyone goes home happy with their arms full of delicious food.
Because many-although certainly not all-of the swappers are parents, the swaps have become family affairs.
Vanessa and I usually bring our daughters, ages 9 and 10, who like to bake their own goodies to swap. As a result, other swappers have started doing the same. At the June swap, for example, 12-year-old Katie Howe's festively decorated chocolate-covered pretzel sticks were one of the most-coveted items. As it turns out, the lure of swapping goodies is a great way to get young people interested in cooking.
And it is not just the kids who are excited.
Glen Ellyn mom Serena Yuen Beltz says the Chicago Food Swap has inspired her as a cook.
"I've made a point to go to the French Market in Wheaton every Saturday morning to get cucumbers to pickle and the amount of jam I've made in the last week is enough to feed an army," she says.
"There's something very satisfying about getting together with a group of foodies and food enthusiasts to share our talent."