Bull market

by Ari LeVaux

Quinn brought five boxes of storage onions from the family farm. Onion skins fluttered behind him like confetti. Matty had deer steak, elk stew and pickled peppers. Carson had deer steak and cherry jam. GO and Polly had sauerkraut made with apples and juniper berries, and fresh-caught whitefish – both frozen filets and pickled. I wanted a jar of pickled whitefish. Greg had carrots, which I also wanted, dug that very day from under a heavy blanket of mulch.

The swap meat began with a round of introductions in which the swappers described their wares. The rest of us listened carefully, making notes about which products we hoped to trade for when the action started.

We meet like this every year to trade our goods. Although we call it the swap meat, the action is hardly limited to flesh. Any food that was acquired and put away personally is fare game.

Often, in the dregs of winter, you may have run out of some items in your food stash but still have a surplus of others – like, say onions. Thus, the swap meat is a great way to diversify your stash and get you over the hump into spring.

Adams introduced a pint of pickled beets, which I wanted, a bag of dehydrated tomatoes I also wanted, some homemade sausage, cucumber pickles, chokecherry syrup, honey, peaches and grape juice.

Then he raised a pint jar filled with a green, amorphous material.

“These green tomato pickles are actually Lisa’s,” Adams said, “but they…”

“Oh no! Those are bad,” Polly objected from across the room.

Murmurs in the swap meat circle.

“No, these aren’t the bad ones,” Adams protested.

“Lisa put ginger in her pickles so they’d be good in martinis,” GO added, “but we tried them and my god, they were eff-ed.”

“This is a different batch,” Adams insisted, but a cloud of suspicion had fallen upon the jar, and rightly so. The first rule of swap meat is you only trade your own goods. That way you know exactly what’s in them and how it was made.

A successful swap meat requires participants to abide by certain quality standards and only people you know will comply should be invited. Frank discussion helps root out the roadkill, the Lisa’s pickles and the like.

A new guy, invited by a credible insider, had packages of moose meat, bags of dried morels, and two packs of homemade sausage that caught my interest: Swedish Potato and Bangers (kind of like bratwurst). He also had organ meat sausage, but I wasn’t in the mood for offal.

In fact, as part of a plan to downsize from two freezers to one, I’d brought about 10 pounds of organ meat myself. I like the concept of eating the whole animal, but while I’ve got steak, I don’t seem to get around to the odds and ends.

I also had 10 pounds of frozen albacore tuna caught off the Washington coast in August 2007 by my buddy Mike. He gave me that fish when he cleaned out his freezer after his August ’08 fishing trip. While this tuna was more than edible, because of its age it probably needed to get eaten soon. In the spirit of full disclosure, I had marinated a big piece of ’07 tuna in soy sauce, sugar, crushed garlic and ginger, and baked it. I made this sample available to all interested parties. It was quickly gobbled up with no complaint.

But since Mike was at the swap meat peddling his ’08 tuna, I felt weird about competing against him with fish he’d given me, so I traded it all to Carson for a pint of cherry rhubarb jam and called it good.

The action got crazy in a hurry. While I was busy trading meat for carrots, the host got to Adams and scored the dried tomatoes and pickled beets before I could make a move.

I had many jars of pickles, mostly peppers and carrots, with which I secured pounds of Quinn’s onions, a package of the host’s legendary bratwurst, jars of GO’s pickled whitefish and some of Mike’s canned tuna.

The new guy’s girlfriend perused my sweet pepper pickle jars and asked what I wanted in exchange.

“Sausage,” I said.

While poorly processed food can be awful, dangerous, or even deadly, carefully processed food can be one of life’s finer joys. And sausage, with its many ingredients and opportunities for contamination, can go either way. It’s all about the maker.

The new guy seemed like a straight shooter who could probably make a clean sausage. I was curious about Swedish Potato and Bangers, and figured it was worth a few pickles to check them out. (I tested the sausages as soon as I got home that night. They were excellent.)

The swap meat action boiled for about 20 minutes until most of the goods had traded hands. In the aftermath, amid the settling up and labeling new goodies with Sharpies, the room filled with the chatter of farming stories, fishing stories and winter gossip. The rug was littered with onion skins, like so many buy and sell orders on the New York Stock Exchange floor.

Adams had moved nearly all his product. “I wish I’d brought more to trade,” he lamented.

The one item remaining on his table was Lisa’s disputed jar of pickled green tomatoes.

He opened the jar, tasted the contents, and didn’t die.

“Dude, these are good,” Adams said. “Here, try.”

He held out the jar. I grabbed the edge of a tomato and pulled. It was shriveled, dripping and green. I took a very small bite. The flavor wasn’t bad, like pickled anything. The texture was nonexistent. They weren’t pickles, really, just flavored slime held together by green tomato skins.

“Doesn’t taste bad,” I said.

“You want to trade for them?” Adams asked, with puppy-like hope.

I didn’t need the pickles, but I wanted the pint jar they were in.

“How about some lamb tongues?”

“Deal,” he said. “I’ll put them in my next batch of sausage.” •