Armed with homemade coconut panna cotta drizzled with a blueberry balsamic reduction, I arrive at Fullsteam Brewery for Bull City Food Swap's July meet-up. By 7:00 p.m., about twenty people have gathered, casually sipping beers as they set up their homemade fare—jars of pickled onions, pork pastrami, cured bacon—eagerly anticipating what they'll trade their goods for.
"I typically have more jam and pickles than I can eat," says Erin Urquhart, a pickle enthusiast and food blogger. "When I moved to the area in 2015, I looked around but couldn't find a food swap in the Triangle area, so I decided to start one."
Urquhart founded Bull City Food Swap not only to stock her pantry, but also to meet new people. Prior to moving to Durham, she started a food swap in New Hampshire, where she discovered how bonding over food fosters fast friendships. Two years in, Urquhart relishes bringing Triangle transplants and foodies together; though these people have a mutual love of food—the swap attracts a mix of avid home cooks, pro chefs, casual bakers, canners, gardeners, and foragers—they might not otherwise cross paths.
At the first swap I attended back in June (where I just observed), I learned that many participants were first-timers. One couple had met Urquhart through a relative, and they showed up with armloads of candied-orange-peel-and-dark-chocolate scones. A man who had recently moved to Durham from Singapore discovered the event on Facebook and brought a homey Indian rice and cheese dish that became an instant hit.
When I show up with my panna cotta at my second-ever food swap, I had a much better idea of what to expect. The atmosphere was a relaxed flurry of setting up and sampling: "informed chaos," as Urquhart describes it. The swap works like a silent auction sans money. It's all about barter. We each set up a display with samples of our fare and complete a form to indicate the name of the dish and denote any allergens. The form also includes numbered spaces where swappers can write down their name and dish to trade if they're enticed by my panna cotta. I do the same on other swappers' forms in hopes of scoring the bacon I spied earlier in the night, along with a jar of garlic dill pickles.
This process lets each participant know who wants to trade with them, and from there we say yea or nay. Saying no is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged; Urquhart reassures people that it's okay to pass on items you don't have a taste for.
As the swapping gets underway, there's a fervor for items such as bresaola from regular Matt Strain, a former chef turned stay-at-home dad who has earned a following for his cured meats. Wilson Salls, another regular who makes hot sauce, has recruited a friend to help make tonight's batch and invited him along to experience the food swap firsthand. I pour a dot onto my finger, and the blend of jalapeño and serrano peppers dissolves onto my tongue in a balanced combination of vinegar and heat. I love everything spicy, so I'm elated when the guys hand me a bottle as a trade for my panna cotta. I'm already planning to fold it into a mushroom omelet and dot it onto lentil soup.
My panna cotta is turned down as a trade for the garlic dill pickles, but no matter; I'm laden down with goodies, and my belly—and heart—are full. (And I'm not mad about going home with a serving of my panna cotta.)
While geeking out with a fellow swapper over fermented foods, I remembered a South Indian fermented lentil and rice batter recipe I learned to make when I nannied for an Indian family. They regularly sent me home with a large container of batter, which I used to make crepe-like dosas and pancake-like uttapam. I know just what to make for the next swap.