The initial trade of the day took a page out of Bernie Madoff's playbook.
At the inaugural Tampa Food Swap held Saturday in Kate Jackson Community Park in Hyde Park, the first customer was an opportunistic squirrel who made off with a chocolate chai coconut bar, wrapper and all. Event organizer Gina Melton was unfazed by the theft, chalking it up to the difficulties that often accompany the launch of something new. A Tampa food blogger, Melton got the idea from fellow bloggers and online food communities.
A concept that has gained purchase in West Coast cities in the past couple years, a food swap is part DIY enthusiasm and part response to a continued bleak economy: Make your best dish, convene with fellow foodies, and begin to barter. No money changes hands. I'll trade you two jars of my bacon jam for one bag of your herbed grissini — what do you say?
The city of Tampa wasn't sure about the venture at first. Melton, an attorney by trade, was quick to point to Florida House Bill 7209, the Cottage Food law, which allows certain types of "cottage" food production in unlicensed home kitchens. Along with Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois and Texas, Florida put its new law into effect July 1, a clear response to the explosion of artisanal foods. Fed by the locavore movement, a dramatic rise in the number of farmers' markets, and thousands of underemployed food enthusiasts with entrepreneurial spirit, the country has seen unprecedented growth in cottage industry foods.
More potluck than business, a food swap is an opportunity to show off your cooking chops. Darla Smoak of Tampa brought the chocolate chai coconut bars (which, she points out, are a "super food" chock full of agave nectar, coconut oil and ground almonds, so we have high hopes for that squirrel), as well as banana bread cupcakes with maple cream cheese frosting topped with bourbon pecan crunchies.
Promoting the event via Facebook and Twitter, Melton opened the swap only to registered participants. Kristin Lehman, an environmental scientist from St. Petersburg, is originally from Berkeley, Calif., where she had seen food swaps but never participated.
"I wanted to make pumpkin butter for this, but no stores had pumpkin," Lehman said as she unpacked her still-warm artisanal white breads and wheels of rustic rolls. Indeed, while Hurricane Irene made short work of pumpkin patches in the Northeast, it was hard to mourn the gourds too much as the smell of just-baked bread filled the park's picnic area.
Attendance at this first swap was low, with many no-shows despite the lovely cool weather. Still, Melton hopes to have dozens of registered swappers at her next event.
"This is not a fussy thing. It's casual and back-to-basics," Melton said as she arranged her bags of salted popcorn caramel and granola bars. "The aim is to bring out some interesting culinary finds as well as that competitive spirit."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.