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Tucked away in Studio Two Three's stark white gallery space off West Main Street, Andrea Buono and Beth Dixon unfold red-and-white gingham tablecloths and set out Ball jars with hand-scribbled labels that read "maple bourbon bacon jam" and "rhubarb, strawberry and vanilla jam." It's a Sunday afternoon, and people start to mosey in with baskets and Tupperware filled with food for an RVA Swappers event, a monthly food trade and social meet-up that Buono and Dixon started in July 2012.
"Hi, I'm Beth. Set up anywhere," Dixon says to a newcomer bearing loaves of freshly baked banana bread with walnuts. People who come to the swap bring things like buttercrunch toffee, chai-spiced vodka, flavored butters (think creamy cranberry-pecan, chipotle-lime or honey-nutmeg), roasted Colombian coffee beans, fuchsia-colored beet-and-horseradish hummus, homemade applesauce and jams aplenty. People start sampling the food and jot down their names next to an item they want to carry home with them.
Recipes from RVA Swappers Dixon and Buono started RVA Swappers with the mission of getting people together to trade food and drinks once a month. The people who attend the food swap come armed with homemade goods as well as ideas, recipes and techniques that jibe with the concepts of scratch cooking and living closer to the land. "It's really nice to have an opportunity to meet people who have an interest in food in general — the newest restaurant or best place to source free-range meat or fresh seafood," Buono says. "It's a good way to disseminate ideas and find answers." In April 2012, Buono, originally from South Side, moved back to town after receiving her master's degree in historic preservation at Columbia University in New York. While in New York, Buono canned and traded food with BK Swappers in Brooklyn. "Their tickets are usually sold out within the first hour of them posting the invite [online]," Buono says, adding that they cap their events at 50 people. "I went [only] to a few, seeing as it was so hard to get tickets, but loved the idea and really wanted to bring it to the Richmond community." After moving back to Richmond, Buono wanted to find like-minded people with whom she could trade recipe ideas. "I definitely knew that there were people interested in where food was coming from and traditional foodways that go back to not their parents' generation, but before that, where the production of what they consumed was much closer to them," she says. She just needed to find that group of people. Then one day, when Buono walked into Pasture downtown for a drink, Dixon was bartending, and they struck up a conversation about canning and preserving. A few minutes later, the two were exchanging ideas, and Buono shared that she'd really like to start a food swap group. Dixon instantly was on board and said she could reach out to her strong network of people in the Richmond food industry. Dixon is also a bartender and beverage consultant at The Magpie and has been working in Richmond's food scene for more than 12 years. From there, Dixon and Buono started spreading the word through a Facebook page and word of mouth. A month later, RVA Swappers held its first event at Pasture. Now, a year later, the group has grown from a handful to around 30 people. They have met at Ellwood Thompson's, Pasture, Little House Green Grocery, Mekong and members' homes for food swaps. Some of the swaps are organized around a theme, such as gluten-free food. Their holiday swap had a booze theme, and people made bitters, brandied cherries, hibiscus-infused syrup, honey liqueurs and cranberry-lime-infused gin. At the food swap, participants bring six homemade items — one for people to sample and five to swap. In the first hour of the meet-up, people mingle and sample food. If they are interested in a fellow swapper's item, they write their name and the foodstuff they brought with them on a slip of paper in front of the desired item. During the second hour, people walk around and swap their items with those who have signed up on their list. "Beth and I decided that five was a good number to take away," says Buono. "You feel like you have gone grocery shopping. It's a substantial amount to take home." Lauren Fly, who made the beet-and-horseradish hummus, also met Dixon at Pasture while grabbing a drink. And after Dixon gave her the RVA Swappers' elevator speech, Fly wanted to join the club. "It was a nice way to meet like-minded people," says Fly, who moved to Richmond recently after living abroad in Amsterdam. "It's fun coming out on a Sunday just to talk about different ways to make things and get ideas. … People don't can and preserve anymore. It's so rewarding." Dixon and Buono want RVA Swappers to be more than a meet-up at which to trade food. They want to educate people in the community about how to can food as well. "People ask me all the time, ‘Will you teach me?'" Dixon says. Dixon, who grew up on a farm in the rural Beaverdam community in Hanover County, was raised knowing how to preserve and can and wants to pass along those skills. She grows greens, herbs, tomatoes, squash and fruit trees in her garden and keeps chickens on her 1/10-acre lot. Although the group has the feeling of an underground food community, it recently was spotlighted on the Southern Food Alliance's blog (southernfoodways.blogspot.com) and was chosen to participate in a dinner event, "Meats, Sweets, Cocktails and Preserves," with Belmont Butchery and the Jefferson Hotel at SFA's "Women, Work and Food" symposium in Richmond on June 20. "What they represent is very interesting," says Melissa Hall, SFA assistant director. Dixon and Buono's mission is to pass down these skills — and the rewarding feeling that comes along with them — to the community. "I love the satisfaction I get after putting up a batch of jam or pickles," Dixon says, "lining all the jars up, and seeing my finished product."