Over the past year (and a bit) I’ve had the deeply satisfying pleasure of playing a small role in bringing people together over food and handmade wonders in the name of building community. Essentially, I’ve been hosting handmade/homemade/homegrown food and goods swaps, and I am hooked.
It began as a series of conversations during which I put out feelers to gauge who in my community and beyond would be interested in this sort of thing, and from there the idea grew and this tradition of seasonal swaps took off. The first was held on a quintessentially crisp fall afternoon. Tables were set up atop leaves that were just starting to decorate the lawn, and under the fall-blue October sky eight old souls showed up with various wares and edibles, placed their creations on the tables, and eagerly looked around to see what else was on offer.
There are so many different ways to organize a swap, and I had decided to go with a one-for-one swap, planning to draw numbers (so, eight people in attendance meant we’d draw numbers 1-8) and take turns each choosing one item from the table. After we all chose once, we’d go through again and each swapper would stay in for the number of rounds equaling the number of items they contributed. Before people showed up for this inaugural swap, I nervously wondered how it would all pan out, if this ‘system’ would work, if the swap items would be anywhere in the hazy and largely indefinable realm of equal worth to each other, and if people would be satisfied with the offerings and the organization.
In the end, as it so often does, it turned out there was no need to worry. Things went very smoothly and people were, in general, thrilled with the goods. As folks arrived and set out their offerings, they labeled them if needed and I watched as they took stock of what was already there and grouped any smaller items if necessary to keep them more in line with the ‘worth’ of others. All of that just happened naturally, with no prompting on my part. Set out in all their glory was a wide variety of items ranging from backyard eggs, apple pie, and kombucha mothers to knitted cowls, hot sauce, herbal teas, and tinctures. And just about everything in between; people brought baked goods, chai concentrate, plants, canned salsas and apple butters, handmade cotton dishcloths, reusable sandwich wraps…. my only stipulations in the invite for that first swap was that everything be handmade/homegrown by the swappers themselves and that all items be either edible or generally utilitarian in nature. Honestly, I half expected a lot of banana bread and maybe some jam, I couldn’t have been more off. Everyone put in quite a lot of time and energy in order to contribute amazing things to the event.
As host, once numbers were drawn and the swapping began, I was pretty closely attached to a clipboard until the swapping ended. Kept busy with calling on people to come make their choices and letting them know when they were in their final round and such, I was in for a bit of work, but it was work of an immensely enjoyable and rather fun variety. People were excited about ‘shopping’. They tried things on and pretended to duel over some of the swag. It was a lively and joyful affair. In between swapping, attendees ate and drank, shared recipes and ideas, and connected over any and everything. In the end, everyone left with a box of goodies and there were murmurings of a future swap.
I wasted no time and almost immediately chose a date for a second swap- an afternoon in early December, to be close to the holidays. Because honestly, what could be better than a pre-holiday gathering that you come away from with many (homemade and incredible) gifts in hand? I kept with the original requests for homemade-ness and utilitarianism, though left it open for people to interpret what “gift-y” items could be, and added an upper limit of ten items per individual. Momentum from the first swap was high and this time there were 17 people participating, with many bringing ten or close to ten items. It was amazing, though a bit overwhelming at times. As host, I learned quite a bit. I learned not to start a swap in (very close to) winter in the mid-afternoon, as it gets dark before 5pm (we always try to set the swap table up outside, weather permitting, to be able to fit everyone and our food and drinks and such inside). It’s possible that near the end we were scrambling to bring out work lights so that the (by then) cold swappers could see the tables. I also learned that overseeing a swap in the way I had been doing them, with that many participants, was…… a bit much.
And yet, lighting snafus and hostess anxieties aside, it was another very successful event. I looked at my pile of goodies that night, a mix of chocolate-covered goodness and quilted notecards, handmade body lotions and flavored butters, jewelry, beeswax candles, homemade bread, goat milk caramel sauce, elderberry syrup, candied citrus rind, and on and on. I felt like I’d gone on a shopping spree at the most fabulous tailgate market that ever existed. But no, it all went down right here in my backyard, among many kind and kindred souls. And I came away with so many of my holiday gifts all ready to go. If I could keep from getting into them myself, that is. I couldn’t very well be expected to look at those dark chocolate-covered morsels for two weeks and not eat two-thirds of them, could I?
With those two swaps under my belt and a desire to shake it up a bit, I decided to do things differently the third go around. A swap cannot happen without active and enthusiastic participants, after all, and I wanted to keep my core group of swap attendees fired up and eager to continue coming out. I wanted to speed up the actual swapping part so as to give everyone more downtime to connect and eat, share and laugh. I was also working towards not being attached to my trusty clipboard all afternoon. So when I hosted my third swap this past June, I limited it to twelve people and requested that everyone bring twelve items. Only eight were able to make it and so I set out eight boxes and as people arrived they doled out their goods, one per box. Any extras (many still came with 12 items) were placed inside on a smaller table. Anything that couldn’t sit out in the warmth of a June day was placed in large coolers under the swap table and a slip of paper describing the item acted as a placeholder in the box.
After everyone had arrived and had ample time to get drinks, connect, and linger over the food table, I went around and we all drew numbers and ‘won’ the corresponding box. The number also acted as our number for the swapping out of the extra items on the smaller table, which we did as we had at previous swaps, only it took much less time since it was a smaller selection of items. This mixed approach was, by far, my favorite method of carrying out the swap thus far. This ‘box-method’ worked very well and everyone still had the thrill of choosing from the regular, smaller swap table as well since there were a few extra things to go around. Many also swapped their own (and sometimes other) items from their boxes afterwards. Eight people ended up being a very reasonable and enjoyable number, and I think twelve may be a good upper limit.
The feedback I received was wonderful and the variety of goods seems to get better and better every time. There were notecards and jam, maple peanut butter cups, lemon curd, homemade puddings (lavender coconut tapioca? Yum.) and almond milk, medicines, yogurt cultures, garden greens and home-roasted organic coffee, goat milk, fresh raw mozzarella and kimchi….. oh my, oh my, oh my.
Fast forwarding to the present, I just hosted my fourth swap this past weekend, another holiday season affair. Having missed the ‘shopping’ approach and the choices it gives each of us, I decided to try to find a sweet spot of still allowing guests to carry out the swap this way, but keep myself free to mingle as well. Enter a large dry-erase board. As people arrived and chose numbers, their names went up on the board next to their number. Following was a column for them to write how many items they brought, one for checking off each time they chose, and a final box to mark with an ‘X’ once they’d made all of their choices. Swapper number 1 told swapper number 2 when it was their turn, and so on, with each swapper responsible for checking off their own boxes. This left me remarkably free to enjoy the party, while we all still got to pick and choose exactly what we wanted. A win-win, and then some. It went very smoothly. I spent lots of time connecting with friends instead of overseeing swapping, and I finally feel that I’ve found the perfect (for me) way of carrying out the swaps. I continue to be amazed at the variety of new things at each subsequent swap (new this time were hand-printed tea towels and notecards, granola, lip balm, herbal vapor rub, adjustable mason jar cozies, and even organic rendered duck fat for the courageous cooks among us), amazed by the items that seem to get better and better, and by the continued enthusiasm of my swap guests.
If you happen to find yourself already surrounded by a community of makers, canners, and growers, then organizing your own swap party will likely be a breeze. And if you don’t, then I imagine it will only be marginally more difficult to set up, because no doubt once you put the word out things will be set into motion. These things just want to happen, I do believe. You could arrange swaps for crafting supplies, artwork, plant starts….. anything you wish. Personally, and for the core group of swappers who come out for my swaps, the foods and more commonly used and useful items are what we want, and so I plan to keep going with that basic theme, deviating just a tad for our holiday swaps. The possibilities are, of course, limitless.
I am such a fan of and advocate of these get togethers. Gathering around food and sharing ideas with one another seems the perfect motivation to keep forging ahead with the small things we set out to do to make our world a better place, one little step at a time. The homemaking, homesteading, and community-building realm of small things, that, when combined with others grow into something much larger. Into self-sufficiency and empowerment, food security and peace of mind. Reclaiming the lost arts of food preserving and medicine making, of stocking our pantries with foods we’ve made ourselves with ingredients we know, especially when done intentionally and alongside others is not merely an inconsequential hobby. It is peace-making, it is therapy, it is the nurturing and strengthening of community and it carries with it the power to rekindle connections between neighbors and neighborhoods. It is good, important stuff. And as an added bonus, it is immensely fun.
Here is a quick reference list of pointers addressing some of the more logistical and housekeeping sides of hosting a swap party.
- Send out your invitations well in advance of the party in order to allow attendees ample time for creating, making, and getting excited. I usually send an invite out at least one month prior to the swap date.
- Decide which swap ‘system’ you prefer, and include details regarding number of items to bring, types of items to bring (and even what not to bring), etc. in your invitation.
- Have swap tables set up and ready to go before guests arrive, as well as coolers and boxes if needed. The more information you give your guests regarding how to proceed with their swap items, the better. Use a large chalkboard or dry-erase board to write out swap procedures and details.
- Have plenty of scrap card stock or paper on hand, as well as pens, twine, and tape, for guests to use to label their items if they have not previously done so.
- Feed and water your swappers well! Chances are, after hosting one of these you will be bitten by the swap bug and you will want these folks to keep coming back, so keep them happy! I try to lay out several seasonal food offerings, as well as provide provisions for a seasonal adult beverage (think summer mojitos, fall cider and bourbon, winter pomegranate cocktails…). I usually invite a few people to contribute a small appetizer or dessert as well.
- Have fun, and be prepared to get hooked!