Portland’s Latest Trend: Food Swaps

text by Megan Bedford
photographs by Justin Gove
for LiveWork Portland

Urban Nectah Collectah's backyard honey and recipe cards. (Photos by Justin Gove)

Urban Nectah Collectah’s backyard honey and recipe cards. 

Cooking, I think, is something of a solitary pursuit. For instance, I might go to a farmers market, privately contemplate a salad of cucumbers, radishes, blueberries, and basil, then return home to test my culinary hypothesis with only my husband or maybe a few friends to judge the results.

However, I am now beginning to discover that much of what makes Portland such a “foodie” city to live in (and I do hate that word, “foodie”) has been overlooked in all those glossy magazine stories about our super-fab restaurants. In fact, we are a city of people who love food. There is a large and diverse community actively working to make Portland one of the most food-forward places to live—not just because locals love food, but also because they believe that good food is a pathway to ensuring the health of our residents, environment, and economy.

As I started talking to people about my blog and love for Maine food and cooking, I began to uncover a swath of groups and events dedicated to strengthening our food community. An incredibly welcoming bunch all around (after all, good meals are about sharing), I found I had more to write about, and a lot more to keep my calendar full.

Swapping with style

Recently, one of my favorite food community events was the Portland Food Swap, a locally organized shindig that welcomes anyone to come swap homemade, homegrown, or foraged foods. Food swaps are growing in popularity throughout the U.S., and have a strong foothold in the Pacific Northwest (particularly in the other Portland) where they are known for high standards of creativity in both content and design.

Relatively new to the East Coast, however, our Portland swap is still young, and working on building its numbers. The July swap was held at Rising Tide Brewery, and had a friendly, laid-back vibe, with a just-right level of excitement among participants and onlookers who happened to be stopping by for a local beer.

As participants arrived, they set up their wares on a long table and filled out cards to describe each unique item. (While swappers are encouraged to bring four to six items to swap, they do not all need to be the same thing.) Cards included spaces for participants to pencil-in their names and proposed swapping items, a bid of interest that one could choose to accept or decline.

A swapper puts in a bid for my grilled lamb and tzatziki.

A swapper puts in a bid for my grilled lamb and tzatziki.

Waiting for the whole group to arrive, swappers mingled with Rising Tide brews, cups of Mexican Agua de Jamaica (“Hibiscus Water” that is a kind of vibrant pink iced tea), and fresh ginger tea over ice with maple syrup, cider vinegar, and club soda.

I attended with a culinary partner, Evan Mills, who is head butcher at Rosemont Market on Brighton Avenue, my go-to place for meat. Our team contribution, Grilled Lamb with Tzatziki, had been prepared in the day leading up the event, and was neatly packaged into six portions. And, as I’d anticipated, ours was a popular dance card.

Local cache

However, I had some reservations about how the swapping would all work out. Would there be hurt feelings if I declined someone’s offer to swap? What if I ended up with a bunch of crap I didn’t want to eat? Like an avid yard saler waiting for the rope to be lifted at 8 a.m., did I need a strategic route to my top picks?

As it turned out, the swap was quite natural, and exceptionally relaxed. When the group decided that everyone had had a chance to make their bids, Evan and I traded gratefully with our neighbors, and accepted some fine offers that made their way down to our end of the table.

While I experienced one loss when the woman with the grass-fed beef steak expressed little interest in our lamb (turns out the steak I had my eye on came from her family’s sheep and cattle farm), each swap seemed genuinely full of appreciation and mutual interest.

My take-homes from the food swap

My take-homes from the food swap: backyard honey, sweet strawberry jam, all-greens pesto, spicy dilly beans, cajeta, homemade crackers, and Rising Tide’s Zephyr IPA.

In the end, Evan and I collected a jar of backyard honey, cajeta (a kind of caramel sauce made with local goat’s milk), spicy dilly beans, sweet strawberry jam, homemade crackers, and all-greens pesto. After packing up, a few of us nabbed  burritos from the El Corazon food truck, which was conveniently stationed on the brewery’s front patio, before heading up the hill for some live music at the East End Park. All in all, a delicious and rewarding way to spend a night out on the town.

Getting the word out

The Food Swap is just one of many ways Portland folks can get involved with the local food community, but like so many events and initiatives it is still struggling to get the word out around town. But the ground swell is perceptible. With an official Food Day coming up on Oct. 24, Mayor Brennan’s innovative Initiative for Healthy Sustainable Food Systems well underway, and thePortland Food Co-Op getting ready to open its first retail space downtown, the community aspect of our Portland food scene is surely growing, and fast.

More about Megansmark

I might never have gotten my cooking obsession out of the kitchen and into the Portland food community if not for my blog, Megansmark. (I know, a food blog. Not terribly original.) But as a writer, and someone who has written about other people’s food for several years, I suddenly couldn’t let another day go by without sharing my forays into luscious duck egg carbonara and dream-inspired rosemary muffins with a larger audience than my parents’ dog.