Anissa Gooch was feeling self-conscious about her hummus. It was the 29-year-old actress’s first food swap, and, for a split second, the dish she had placed on the trading table—a bowl of chickpeas whipped with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic—seemed worryingly pedestrian. Could she really trade for that infused vinegar? Or the garbanzo-bean tempeh? She eyed a glass bottle of home-brewed kombucha, the raspberry-hibiscus-ginger variety. The cherry-colored tea practically glowed in the sunlight. Gooch’s hummus, she lamented, was plain-old beige.
“I just want the kids to like me,” she joked.
I knew the feeling. I was fretting over my brandied mincemeat. I had managed to come up with six jars of the stuff, thanks to much hand-holding from a canning friend. But in the midst of prepping my samples, it hit me: none of the ingredients were organic. None came from a co-op. My friend, who canned fruit out of pure frugality, had advised against it: “If you’re gonna can,” she said, “don’t be a yuppie about it.”
Gooch and I set out to find some friends. Of the 40 or so swappers in the rented space, few were dudes. I looked to one for support. Tim had tagged along with his wife, Odia. Had he helped at all with her dandelion jam? “Not really,” he said. “But I built the kitchen where it was all made.” Damn.
The bidding sheets threatened judgment. Upon entering, we had each listed the item we brought on a square of paper, along with any ingredients problematic to a restricted diet. The five bullet points at the bottom, where interested swappers would write their bartering offers, seemed unnecessarily numerous. Could I really tempt five of these foodies with my Rainbow Foods-sourced mincemeat?
Kim Christensen, the Minneapolis Food Swap’s founder, sensed my mood.
“It doesn’t really matter,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s about preparing food with love. Everything someone brings is going to have value to someone else, even if it is really simple.”
Yeah, but…didn’t I hear someone had made their own mustard? With horseradish she had foraged in her own backyard?
It’s a week before the swap, and Christensen, 29, is making jam—“a nice, thick, happy jam,” she says, made with “cute little peaches.” Warm and welcoming, sporting thick-framed glasses and a hand-sewn apron, she makes a convenient spokeswoman for the movement she’s come to represent: the hipster domestic. She’s a bundle of cheer in her south Minneapolis kitchen, chopping rhubarb stalks near the sink, then whisking over to the stove, where six mason jars are submerged in a pot of boiling water.
“The dietary restrictions were a big catalyst for kicking all this stuff off,” Christensen tells me. “I had known forever that I had a screwed up digestive system.”
It’s hard to imagine her ill. But just three-and-a-half years ago, she says, she had frequent, knifing stomach pain. She couldn’t make it up a flight of stairs. She was depressed and forgetful, leaving stovetop burners on and losing her cell phone in the refrigerator.
“I had lost 50 pounds in six months,” she remembers. “I wasn’t digesting food. It was just bad, and it wasn’t getting better.” Fearing food allergies, Christensen put herself on an intense healing diet, axing all the major nutritional no-no’s. She was already a vegetarian. Now she quit dairy, eggs, gluten, and nightshade vegetables. She saw a naturopath and an acupuncturist. And she launched a blog about the whole ordeal, called “Affairs of Living.” That was 2008. It would be another year before she figured out what was really going on: she had Lyme disease.
“I got the diagnosis about a year and a half ago,” she says. “Now, I take a lot of pills.” Her naturopath doctor, she says, helped her gut to heal. She’s eating meat again. She’s brought back eggs. But she’s had to take full command of her nutrition. She doesn’t just cook her own food; she grows it now, too. Her backyard is a Tetris block of planting beds.
Last summer, she came across Kate Payne’s influential homesteading blog, “The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking.” Payne, an avid canner, had just launched a food swap in New York that March, inspired by a simple exchange with a friend. Payne had offered to trade jars of her triple-citrus marmalade for her pal Megan Paska’s artisanal honey. After that, the two women decided it would be fun to round up more food-centric friends and host a swap on a larger scale. One year later, the urban food swap had become a full-blown social phenomenon, spawning imitators in cities like Portland, Austin, Los Angeles, even London. Today, Christensen estimates there are at least 30 active swaps in the United States.
“Kate and I started talking online,” Christensen remembers. “She looked at my blog and said, ‘Wow, we really have doppelgänger interests.’” Christensen launched a local swap this past March, leveraging Facebook and Twitter to round up 30 participants. The next day, the MPLS Swappers Facebook page had doubled its friend count; a week before the group’s third event, in July, that count had grown to 226. Registration filled up in three days.
The bidding erupted around us. Swappers flitted around the trading tables, the mood as eager and urgent as an Easter egg hunt.
Why did these people do it? Christensen swapped for the joy and health of it. But why would these other folks—mostly young, city-dwelling women, co-op shoppers, artistically inclined, and generally bearing all the watermarks of a progressive mindset—be so enamored of old-fashioned domestic skills? Some cited the recession and its new vogue for DIY frugality. Some cited a simple desire for community. (A swapper named Becca, offering lavender shortbread cookies, imagined the events becoming her “new church.”) But many cited politics, a renunciation of consumer culture, even feminism.
“There’s this sense that we’re reclaiming being a homemaker,” said Mandy Ellerton, a grassroots organizer who now helps Christensen run the swaps. Jam-making feminists, it turns out, now enjoy an official term in the foodie lexicon: “femivores.” It’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma meets Betty Friedan.
“I don’t want to turn my back on my home life just so I can have a position in the workplace,” said Christensen, a project producer for Target’s in-house photo studio. She acknowledged the swaps’ lopsided gender ratio. “I would like there to be more men, but regardless of your gender identity, I think it’s important to know how to do this stuff.”
But what about health concerns? If all the goods are handmade, should we wonder where all those hands have been? Christianson, conflicted, says maybe. “It’s a growing discussion in the larger community,” she admitted. No one has gotten sick from a Minneapolis swap, but events elsewhere have begun requiring signed waivers. Christensen, though, is reluctant to go that route. “I want to keep this grassroots,” she says.
In the end, there wasn’t a blank bidding sheet in the room. Gooch, the actress, took home a lovely tomato-and-herb-seedling trio. And just before everyone cleared out, a woman in her 40s, whose name did not appear on my bidding sheet, approached me.
“Hey, are you the guy with the mincemeat?”
“Want some kombucha?”
Hell yes, I wanted some. I gave her a jar and took that sexy red drink straight home.
Info: The next Minneapolis Food Swap is scheduled for Sunday, August 14.
Visit mplsswappers.wordpress.com to register.
Gregory J. Scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.