Flash in the Pan 

The finer points of “swap meat” planning

Last spring I wrote about an event that’s likely to become an institution in my circle of friends. Called the “swap meat,” it was an opportunity for people who trust each other to get together and trade food that was homegrown, hunted, gathered, preserved, and otherwise acquired via do-it-yourself means. People traded frozen deer, pickled peppers, dried fruit, syrups, jams, garlic, morels, tinctures, potions, and beer. Some folks even traded boyfriends. You name it, anything goes at the swap meat.

It was a fabulous success, and based on the amount of feedback I got from my column, I think it’s an idea that’s here to stay. It’s also, of course, an idea that’s older than the blankets Indians used to display their tradable wares upon in the traditional blanket swaps. It’s an idea that’s probably as old as food itself. But modern inventions like invitations, freezers, home-canning technology, etc., have added more possibilities to the swap meat, turning it into something of a melting pot of celebrations including potluck gatherings, dinner parties, booze binges, and the always overdue freezer cleaning.

Most of the reader feedback followed along the lines of “What a great idea! Please put me on the list and invite me to the next swap meat! I’ve got lots of extra huckleberry jelly and bread and butter pickles to swap!”

Yep, everyone wants to come to the next swap meat, a fact at once beautiful and problematic.  My response to these well-intended inquiries is always “Well, if I’m hosting a swap meat, maybe I’ll invite you. But swap meat invitations are the sole responsibility of the host.”

See, there are a lot of reasons why a swap meat should not be confused with a keg party, and strict management of participants can be crucial. Home preserved food, if done poorly, can be disgusting or even dangerous. The host, by inviting people whose skills are presumably known, thereby exerts an important measure of quality control. If I were to invite some stranger to someone else’s swap meat, this quality control loop is short-circuited. That deer backstrap you trade for might have been carved from a road killed doe (which lay beside the road how long?), and then sat in a freezer for two years—or was it a friend’s freezer, or was the road killed backstrap salvaged by a friend and left in a stranger’s freezer when the road kill butcher fled town?

Oh, wait, that’s what happened at the last swap meat. Some invited guest brought an uninvited friend whose freezer contained the road kill meat abandoned by the butcher. At least the guy was forthright enough to tell the whole tale during the introduction circle. Everyone appreciated his honesty. Nobody wanted his meat.

The introductory circle happens after the guests have arrived (there is no such thing as fashionably late to a swap meat—late being no better than never), and the host has served a round or two of hors d’oeuvres. During the hors d’oeuvres, guests can schmooze and catch up, even talk business if they want. The intro circle comes next, in which the guests describe what they’ve brought for trade. Then the action starts, so rapid-fire it can be disorienting, and can end before you even find your groove. Those who strike fast, meanwhile, walk away with the best trades.

Another reason not to invite strangers (or friends) to someone else’s swap meat is that these events must be small enough to fit in the living room/dining room/kitchens of the host domicile.  And with the idea of swap meats so “in the air,” as it were, so ready to happen, any swap meat could easy spiral too big, too out of control.  Indeed, a swap meat should be a common event, held in different houses in different circles simultaneously. Rather than a mega, centralized deal, swap meats should be decentralized and scattered, in a neighborhood near you.

Yes, swap meats should blanket the landscape like the swaps of yore would blanket the open clearings and tipi circles of the plains. New world, or even New Age twists can change the details and call for a new set of rules—such as, if you trade someone a jar, make sure the person promises to get you your jar back, or better yet, trade your jars for other jars.

While the rules and the names change, it’s the same game: the game of trade, the Market, the economy, otherwise known as the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends. Yes, there is competition. There is haggling. There is speed, and capitalizing on the mistakes of others. But the swap meat should be done on a level playing field, with sportsmanlike conduct, respect, and trust.  It should be creative, and it should be fun.

In fact, if it isn’t the most fun you’ve had all day, it isn’t a swap meat.

Ask Ari: Why hunt alone when you make great pie?

Q: Dear Ari,

I hunted and guided (mulies and elks) for 10-plus years in eastern Oregon. When I left there I found out all “our” supposed hunting buddies were really my husband’s hunting buddies.

I tried hunting alone a couple times, and I’m just not big enough (or young enough anymore) to think it viable—or smart. I’ve been traveling around some since then and haven’t acquired new hunting buddies. But I will.

I swear this is the last year I don’t hunt. I will acquire hunting buddies prior to next summer. Already working on it—joined the Backcountry Horsemen when I moved to Hamilton in August, and I figure that’s a good source for HBs.

Any thoughts?

—In Search Of HBs

A: Dear ISOHB,

By running your letter like this, I’m obviously giving you the equivalent of a Hot Pick in the personal section. Readers, rest assured that I’m only giving ISOHB the pulpit because she also gave me her awesome recipe for mincemeat pie. If any of you want the recipe, forward me a letter for ISOHB and I’ll send you the recipe and send her your letter, ’kay?

By the way, hunting alone, especially for elk, is indeed dangerous, and I support your caution. If you get darked on while you’re in the woods and have to find your way back to camp at night, it can make Blaire Witch Project look like Bambi. Bring a map and compass, have an escape plan that involves the map and compass, and then use your damn map and compass. Follow them—even if you think they are telling you lies. And always be prepared to survive a night out, just in case.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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