Flash In The Pan 

Social networking for foodies

You find each other online. After a brief exchange of messages, you both agree it's a good match and arrange to meet in person to do the deed.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF LAURA BERMAN
  • Photo courtesy of Laura Berman

Before the appointment, you harvest some ripe tomatoes from your heavy vines and place them in a reusable shopping bag. Then you ride your bicycle to the appointed location, a community garden where your counterpart has a plot. You return home with your bag full of potatoes, zucchini and, as an unexpected bonus, an ear of sweet corn.

The matchmaker in this deal is veggietrader.com, which has enlisted more than 7,000 members since coming online in April. Prospective traders from all 50 states have prowled the site's pages, and now even some Canadians want to play, according to co-founder Rob Anderson of Portland, Ore.

Anderson and his wife Tam Crawford created Veggie Trader in response to a disturbing observation they shared.

"We looked around and saw all this food going to waste," Anderson says, referring to gardens in his neighborhood. "With the economy the way it's been, it's a shame."

Signing up and using Veggie Trader is free. To search for trading partners, plug in your zip code and the distance you're willing to travel. The search results display who has what to trade, where they are, and what, if anything, they want in return. The most popular entry in the "what you want in return" category, Anderson says, is "whatever," or "anything but [the item being offered]." This is telling.

"It's not just about the veggies or fruit," Anderson says. "There's a social component. People are looking to connect with like-minded folks in their neighborhood."

One post reads: "I have cabbage, garlic, dill and in a few weeks, heirloom tomatoes. All the vegetables are grown without pesticides or herbicides. I also have many cooking and gardening magazines to trade."

Soon after Veggie Trader went online, it became clear that the site could disperse more than surplus produce. Before the growing season had even progressed to the point that anything was ready to harvest, there was already a brisk trade in seedlings. Since then, pictures of baby plants growing in their new homes have been exchanged, and plans made to share the fruits when the time was ripe.

The friendships Veggie Trader has catalyzed seemed already waiting to happen, and these relationships might become Veggie Trader's most enduring accomplishment, long outlasting the shelf-life of perishable produce. And while it would be far from Veggie Trader's intended purpose, it seems only a matter of time until romantic hook-ups are reported.

Right now veggietrader.com is a self-funded labor of love, but someday, Anderson hopes, he'll figure out a way to convert the site into a day job. Will veggietrader.com get bought out by Google? Will users be required to pay commissions in strawberries and garlic? Will it register as a nonprofit and go for grant money? Anderson and Crawford are still chewing the possibilities for revenue generation, but for the moment the site is refreshingly free of advertisements, and doesn't even display a way to donate.

The members currently have a lot of open space between them—especially outside of major metropolitan hot-spots on both coasts. If only the New Orleans resident offering "pesticide-free Black Eyed peas" lived closer to York, Pennsylvania, where she could trade for "Epazote, an herb used by Mexicans when cooking beans. It helps to prevent gas."

Having a community behind you makes a locavore diet a lot more diverse, interesting and likely. There's already a page on veggietrader.com devoted to cooperative gardens, in which neighbors can plan a shared garden in their community. Each member takes responsibility for a specific crop.

Anderson and Crawford are excited to watch, and help, their site evolve organically to fill new niches as they appear. A few weeks ago they opened the site to farmers listing produce for sale. "It's an interesting way for local farmers to advertise," Anderson says.

Veggie Trader reminds me of something my friends and I have been doing for years, a mid-winter tradition we call the "Swap Meat." It began as a way for fellow hunters to exchange sausages, jerky and various cuts of our respective animals, but quickly evolved into an all-out barterfest where many forms of home-stashed food change hands. Pickles, jam, sauces, dried morels, frozen fruit, root crops from cold storage and many other forms of preserved food are swapped in the frenzied and festive atmosphere of our swap meats. I wouldn't be surprised to see get-togethers of this sort planned through veggietrader.com.

Along the same lines, equipment like dehydrators, steam juicers, pressure canners and vacuum sealers could be shared by industrious Veggie Traders, or loaned to one another in exchange for a portion of the preserved product.

Anderson acknowledges that many of these possibilities have crossed their minds, and as long as they're legal, the founding traders are open to them. With only a few months under its belt, veggietrader.com promises to be full of surprises, and he and Crawford are looking to the site's users to provide ideas on where it should go from here. "We're looking forward to what happens in the fall and winter," Anderson says.

Ask Ari: The perfect BLT

Q: Dear Flash,

In honor of tomato season, I've been experimenting with various forms of the BLT. I've tried adding avocado, hot peppers, cheese, ranch dressing, mustard and other logical players. Do you have any words of wisdom in this department?

—BLTrainer

A: Well yes, I do have a few thoughts on the BLT. First and foremost, the BLT is nothing without mayo, which interacts with tomato in a very special way. And my preferred mayo is actually fake mayo: Grapeseed Oil Vegenaise, made by Earth Island.

Why am I such a cheerleader for Grapeseed Oil Vegenaise? Well, I could say that it isn't made with low-grade factory farmed eggs, and that would be part of the picture. The fact that there are only eight ingredients, all of which I can pronounce, and all of which I have in my cupboard and fridge, is nice too, as is the fact that it's produced with solar energy. But the fact of the matter is that Grapeseed Oil Vegenaise is simply the best-tasting mayo on the planet. And no, they don't pay me to say it, but I'd love it if Earth Island wanted to sponsor me. I can see it now: "Grapeseed Oil Vegenaise, the official fake mayo of Ari LeVaux."

Another important element of the BLT is onion. It's indispensable, as far as I'm concerned, and the sandwich should be called a BLOT.

And here's some super-secret knowledge that will help you with all of your sandwich making. Many people prefer BLTs made with toasted bread. Toasting keeps the mayo and tomato from soaking through the bread and making it soggy. But sometimes the toast can scratch your mouth, especially when the sandwich is so tasty you eat it faster than you should.

So do this: Place two pieces of bread together and toast them as one piece, so each piece has one toasted side and one soft side. Make your sandwich with the toasted sides facing in. Props to my farmer friend Cojones for that brilliant tip. Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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