The Mastermind made rounds with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. “Careful, the pan is hot, and the morels are available for swap,” he said. His next tray held pesto crostinis made with basil that, he noted, was available as well.
Pathos, a philosopher/farmer known to think ’til it hurts, handed me a bag of frozen hot peppers. “I promised you these last summer,” he said.
Also circulating the room was a writer with a tray of fabulous homemade onion rings, made from onions grown by Pathos, who had several 10-pound bags of onions available for trade, along with garlic, pickled beets, rainbow trout and a chicken.
Goods were heaped upon a table and arranged by owner. Others kept their goods in open boxes and sat by them, like burrito salesmen outside a Dead show. The Mastermind ushered us into a circle, around which we took turns describing our goods.
The new guy described his home-brewed IPA as “ghetto,” because he botched the filtering and the bottles have to be gently poured-off into a pint glass to serve. The beer’s flavor was definitely uptown. He traded for fish.
One fellow, who didn’t get much action that night, disclosed, “I’ve got two packs of meat my friend gave me. I don’t know where it’s from, if it’s roadkill or what. I’m a vegetarian.”
When Bugle Boy announced his elk backstrap, there was a hushed chorus of ooohs and aaahs.
In addition there were morels, plum chutney, deer salami, salmon (canned, frozen and smoked), pasta sauce, apple sauce, rhubarb sauce, salsa, dog and cat treats, pear leather (aka pleather), jars of bread & butter pickles and pickled radishes, peppers and kohlrabi, world-famous Seven Dragon pepper sauce, frozen raspberries, strawberries, kale, chard, tomatoes, broccoli and chunks of red meat, all for swap.
When the bell rang, it was total pandemonium. I began negotiating with a man standing next to me—known in some circles as an eco-warlord. We struck a deal that included his friend-caught Alaskan Sockeye for my mixed-pepper ketchup. A woman, who also had Alaska connections, wanted my jar of justly coveted strawberry-rhubarb jam in exchange for half a side of sockeye. I wasn’t sure if it was a good deal, but I did want that fish, and in the frenzy of trading I didn’t even counter-offer. After cooking that salmon in coconut curry sauce, I’m okay with the trade.
The Swap Meat was three or four dimensions of what looked like total chaos, but was actually perfectly ordered. This order was based on trust, and each trader’s intimate knowledge of—if not intimate love for—his or her product. An undertaking like this is not to be taken lightly, or with casual acquaintances. Preserving food requires a long series of careful steps which all must be conducted with care, beginning with the acquisition (or cultivation, hunting, etc.) of the raw materials and continuing all the way through processing and preserving. At best, a carelessly preserved product can taste awful. At worst, it’s a health risk.
The Filmmaker, who I’d noticed admiring my pickled peppers, had sauerkraut to trade. I’m not a big sauerkraut fan, but he approached me with a quart jar and said “Chef Boy, I really want you to have this.” Touched, I blurted, “I want you to try my pickled peppers.”
The exchange that ensued was the heart of the evening. It wasn’t trade; it was mutual gift giving.
And the sauerkraut was great alongside Bugle Boy’s Thuringer sausage, pan-fried for breakfast.
Better yet, The Filmmaker still owes me a jar of his pickled peppers (for which I swapped him deer meat). When I try his peppers, I’ll learn something more about pickled peppers. And when he brings them over maybe he’ll bring some of his alleged lemon tequila rhubarb cocktails.
Indeed, not all transactions were closed that evening. Maggotbrain owes me deer sausage, Speciman owes me peach chutney, and I’m hoping The Writer will give me that onion ring recipe.
My biggest regret is not getting more fish, especially that chunk of halibut I wanted. Alas, it all happened so quickly, and I didn’t have a game plan.
But sure as sausage there will be a next time. After the dust settled and most of the swappers had gone home, The Mastermind and I reflected on the groundbreaking success of the first (that we know of) Swap Meat.
“I got three packs of smoked salmon, a big chunk of halibut, two salmon filets, a rainbow trout and a chicken that Pathos killed with his bare hands!” he gushed gleefully, as we munched rounds of his elk sausage.
“This sausage is amazing,” I said. “Do I have some of this?”
“Oh yes, and I have your pickled radish.”
That’s when we noticed the chunk of elk top-round that I had brought over, intending to grill up some hors d’oeuvres.
“Don’t forget your meat,” said The Mastermind.
“Keep it,” I said, “as partial payment for helping me drag it out”—an activity which took three of us from 9 pm to 4 am last Thanksgiving.
This, my friends, is community.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Feeling the heat
Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,
Won’t global warming be good for Montana’s agriculture economy? If temperatures climbed a few degrees we could grow things like okra, bananas and mangos.
A: Dear Heatseeker,
Did some schmuck who can’t pronounciate the word “nuclear” put you up to this?
Suppose you’re right. The economies of most banana-, okra- and mango-exporting nations make poor frozen Montana look pretty wealthy.
But actually, you’re wrong. Because in addition to warmth, plants need water to survive. Global warming will adversely affect mountain snowpack and result in less water availability for agriculture. And if you think the oil wars are ugly, just wait until the water wars start.
Meanwhile, were the temperatures to rise high enough for Montana mangos, the trees we already have, like apples and plums, will die. Already the warming temperatures are messing with these trees, coaxing them to bud earlier in the spring and then blindsiding them with arctic blasts that bring the temperatures back down to what they should have been in the first place, killing the buds along with any chance that tree will bear fruit for the year.
Sorry, Heatseeker, you’re the only “bananas” in Montana.
And on this note, I received the following e-mail from the writer Bill McKibben, who by his own request is on the Flash in the Pan e-mail list.
Hey Ari—I enjoy my weekly dose!—thanks. Here’s what I’m working on; I hope you can do a rally somewhere, and pass word on to your world of friends—Bill
He goes on to describe a nationwide global warming action being planned for April 14, and he’s hoping to see a chapter set up in Missoula. For more info go to www.stepitup.org, or e-mail me.
Send your food and garden queries to email@example.com.