Rules for Effective Food-Swapping

Dear Helena,
I keep reading about food swaps being really trendy right now. What is the etiquette? For example, do you have to trade your stuff for items you might not like just to be polite? Also, I feel a bit weird about eating food from the kitchens of total strangers. How do I know their cooking is safe? Is it rude to question people about how they have made something?
—Jam for Pickles

Dear Jam for Pickles,
Unlike at a cookie swap, at a food swap you generally get to choose with whom to trade. But your fellow participants are often strangers, which means you don't have to worry about giving offense. I interviewed some veteran food-swappers and got the basic etiquette rules.

Take a leap of faith.
Food swapping is like going on a date with someone you met online: You make your best guess about what you want, and if you pick wrong, the worst that can result is boredom or mild revulsion. Yes, since no money changes hands at food swaps, there are no government safety regulations to protect you—you have to take a leap of faith and just trust the food is safe. It's rude and boring to grill someone relentlessly about the purity of his ingredients or his kitchen hygiene. So don't ask, "How thoroughly did you wash your hands?" or "Are these pears organic?" Particularly with fruit jams, jellies, and preserves, you don't need to worry. "It's highly unlikely you will get sick from canned jam because of the acidity level," says Kate Payne, author of The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking. To be on the safe side, avoid canned meat, which can be dangerous if improperly prepared. "I would never trade a home-canned bacon marmalade," says Payne.

Keep it low-key.
The food swap is not an opportunity to promote your start-up kombucha or flavored-butter company. That's missing the point, says Payne. The homemade look and feel and the relaxed atmosphere are part of the charm. Payne recommends a bake-sale aesthetic. In other words, put your matcha brownies on "a plate with a piece of Saran over it." Skip the colored cellophane and ribbon curlicues.

Don't be afraid to say no.
A food swap is not like a family potluck at which you choke down a helping of Aunt Gertie's gefilte fish casserole out of politeness. You shouldn't worry about other people feeling rejected, any more than you worry about the people who run the gourmet food shop feeling crushed when you walk out without buying anything. Bethany Rydmark, who has organized food swaps in Portland, Oregon, recommends that hosts "announce at the start that people can accept or decline with no guilt. That helps set the tone." Payne suggests a polite way to refuse: Simply say, "Let me see what I end up with, and if I have something extra I'll talk to you later."

If you're the one who is rejected, know that it's not necessarily because your stuff looks unappetizing. It may be because your item is too humdrum. Swappers favor the exotic. Rather than strawberry jam, says Payne, people might go for "home-preserved fancy figs in a cordial" or a home-infused liqueur, like the marjoram vodka she picked up at one swap.

Don't haggle.
The general rule of food swaps is one item for one item. Otherwise, it gets too competitive. No one wants to hear: "Well, I stayed up until 2 a.m. hand-shaping these empanadas, so one of them is worth at least two of your chocolate chip cookies."

Do pity swaps.
If you've got everything you want and you still have extra jars of your quince butter, don't take them home again. Swap your leftovers with people whose offerings have been ignored. Rydmark says more sophisticated cooks may swap for items they don't really want as a way to encourage beginners: "It's like a foodie high-five." Even if you aren't particularly interested in someone's gluten-free scones, you can probably think of something to do with them. You can always give them to a homeless person.

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