Emily Paster, a Chicago-based lawyer turned food swap advocate and culinary writer, will be passing through NYC today and tomorrow to talk about her new book Food Swap: Specialty Recipes for Bartering, Sharing & Giving. If you don’t know what a food swap is, it’s just what it sounds like: members of the community register to bring home-cooked foods to a scheduled meet-up location, and from there, participants barter with one another to amass a literal take-home smorgasbord. The movement is alive and well in plenty of places across the US, but there’s still plenty of room to grow and spread the word. As such, I got caught up with Paster to talk about the ins and outs of this genius concept, as well as what she’s learned from her involvement. Internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, catch Paster at Brooklyn Brainery tonight at 6:30pm (register here) and/or Mid-Manhattan Library tomorrow night at 6:30pm (register here), and be sure to grab a copy of Food Swap, which is available now via Storey Publishing. HERE WE GO:
So how big is this book tour?
I’m going to a bunch of places in different chunks; I was in California for a week in July, got back from that and spent a couple days at home, and then I came back out to do some East Coast stuff. After that, I’m going to go home for a few more days before going out to the Pacific Northwest. So it’s not like I’m out on the road for three consecutive weeks. (I kind of have to go back home periodically and like, do laundry, see my children…[Laughs])
Right! And are you still practicing law? Or has this kind of taken over as your full-time?
Yeah, no, I actually kind of have given up the law at this point; I don’t practice anymore, and I used to teach a little bit, but I don’t even do that anymore. It’s all culinary now. I’m very lucky. [Laughs]
And are you all self-taught for the most part?
Yeah, I am! You know, I’ve taken some cooking classes the way that people who love to cook do, mostly for specific skills like sourdough bread or fresh pasta, but no formal training at all. And it’s interesting, because I think culinary is one of the few careers left where you can be self-taught. I mean, obviously I’m just a writer, but there are chefs in the restaurant world who never went to culinary school. I think it’s a really interesting thing, because what other career at this point allows you to be self-taught? You can’t be a self-taught architect, you can’t be a self-taught lawyer, but it still exists in culinary that people can learn on the job, or learn by experience.
So how’d you actually go about compiling the recipes that made it into the book? Because you’ve got, what, seventy-five or so? And they’re all pretty diverse, so how’d you go about that process?
Yeah, it was interesting, because I think I was sort of hoping to crowd-source those a little bit more from people who come to Chicago Food Swap or people who go to food swaps in other cities. People were just generally shy or secretive about giving their recipes, and there are some crowd-sourced recipes in the book, definitely, but the majority of them were ones I developed by myself. They were all inspired by things I’d seen at the Swap, though, and I wanted to have a pretty good cross-section of different things you might see at a food swap. (So everything from the baked goods and candies into the soups, the dips, the granola and snacks, and then into the preserved pantry-type stuff like jam and pickles and flavored vinegars. That kind of stuff.) Once I thought about the categories, I took inspiration from stuff I’d seen other people swap that looked really appealing or had been really popular.
What was the most difficult of the batch for you to tinker with or get right?
Oh, that’s a really good question. No one’s ever asked me that before. You know, some of the baking was tricky in that it’s really hard to make up a recipe for baked goods. You have to be pretty precise. You can just make up a soup recipe, but if you’re trying to do a cake or something, there are ratios and a chemistry involved. I obviously wanted to be original and not be taking someone else’s recipes, but I also wanted mine to work. [Laughs] So that was something where you have to do a lot of research and pull together from different sources.
So out of all the food swaps you’ve been to over the years, has there ever been anything that’s just absolutely blown your mind that, to this day, you still think about in awe?
You know, my favorite thing is when people bring things that reflect their culinary heritage, and that (unless you were friends with someone from that background) you might not have a chance to try. We had a woman who was Filipina who came to the Chicago Food Swap, and she brought lumpia (which are the Filipino egg rolls) and purple yam buns, and if you didn’t have a Filipino friend, you’d never get to try things like that! So it was so cool, and that’s what really gets me super jazzed. And recently someone brought tamales to the Chicago Food Swap, and I was like, “Okay, listen. I started the Chicago Food Swap four years ago just so someone would bring tamales.” It took four years, but thank god! Finally we have homemade tamales! [Laughs]
That’s amazing! And so who’s allowed to participate in food swaps? Is it open to anybody who wants to bring dishes? Or is there some sort of a selection process? (Because there’s always somebody at a potluck that brings something you eat out of politeness, but you’re not necessarily going back for seconds…)
No, it’s totally open to the public! As with most food swaps, we want people to register in advance. (That helps it become a private event, which I think is helpful for legal reasons.) So you want people to RSVP and sign up in advance, and that’s not really too burdensome. Nobody just shows up to a food swap, because you made something, and you know you’re going to go. But it’s open to the public, and in terms of whether or not the food is good, a lot of times people bring samples; some people get nervous that no one will want their stuff, so I tell them to bring samples so that people are able to try it, and if they like it, they’ll obviously want to swap. Generally, though, the kinds of people who come really love to cook, and their stuff is pretty yummy.
Have you noticed any specific trends emerging recently in terms of what people are bringing?
You know, it really follows the trends in the culinary world. For instance, fermenting is really hot right now, so you see a lot of kombucha or kimchi and fermented things like that. And there’s obviously a seasonal component, too; this time of year people are bringing stuff from their gardens, and that’s really cool. But what’s happening in culinary is generally reflected in what people bring to the food swaps.
Well the whole concept is such a good idea! Why do you think this isn’t a mainstream trend by now, and what is the biggest challenge you think food swappers face?
You know, even though it’s a growing movement and it’s happening all over the country, there are still so many people who haven’t heard of it. Even in places like New York, where there’s a really active food swap, or here in Philly, there are still so many people who haven’t heard of the concept, and when they hear about it, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I want to do that!” So I think it’s really about getting the word out that this is a thing that’s happening. And I think particularly among the millennial generation, young people really embrace the concept; these are people who’ve grown up with the internet, who take Uber everywhere, who do Airbnb, so the idea of food swapping is a n0-brainer. It’s people who are my age or older (and I’m in my forties) who have that pause of, “What? Trade food with strangers? Umm…” whereas young people are like, “Yeah? That’s not even hard to get my head around.”
Totally. Now, I have two more questions for you, and the first one is: if you were stranded on a desert island and could only take one kitchen gadget with you, which would you choose?
Oh my god. It’s gotta be a sharp knife, right? [Laughs]
Yeah, I think that would serve a pretty crucial role. How about secondary?
Wouldn’t it have been funny if I’d have said something completely pointless? Like a strawberry huller? [Laughs] “Oh, I’d have to bring my spiralizer, obviously!” No, that is not the answer. But I think my two choices would be a knife and a pan so I wouldn’t have to eat everything raw.
Good answers. And finally, what’s up next for you after these tour dates and the book release?
I’m working on a new book which’ll be out next year on a Jewish food topic. My two sort of loves are preserving and Jewish cuisine, so for all my people in New York, there’s your little shout-out. [Laughs] I’m telling you, as soon as I get to New York, my first stop is Russ & Daughters. I’m there. [Laughs]