Food in a Cashless Economy: East Bay Homemade Food Swaps 

Plus Oakland's carbon-neutral coffee shop, Noble Cafe, expands its food offerings.

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In the East Bay barter economy, eggs are the hot ticket right now. "Everybody must be doing the backyard chicken thing, because we're seeing tons of eggs," said Kendra Poma, founder of East Bay Homemade Food Swaps. "Last fall I think everyone was making home-brewed beer .... You start to notice trends."

Poma started these swaps in February 2011 after reading about similar events happening all over the country. The premise is simple: 25 to 30 food artisans and backyard farmers meet up at a pre-ordained East Bay location (past swaps have been in Emeryville, North Oakland, and Golden Gate). Each swapper keeps a sign-up sheet in front of his or her goods, and other participants write down what they are willing to trade, e.g. "four muffins for one jar of salsa."

This Saturday was the first food swap since the event took a winter hiatus, and 25 people descended on an undisclosed Oakland location ("drop-in swappers" are discouraged due to space constraints). Poma always gets more applicants than there is space for; participants are chosen on a first-come-first-served system unless there's a glut of certain items. This month she had to turn away some egg swappers in the interest of variety.

There was certainly a range of options Saturday, from home-brewed ginger beer to quiche to backyard-grown tea blends. Every swapper received offers, but it's hard to say how many were accepted. The silent auction-style system was chosen to avoid the awkwardness of face-to-face rejections.

Poma's main income comes from selling handcrafted jewelry made out of recycled bicycle tubes (welcome to Portlandia), but swapping has become her passion. She loves the idea of a cashless economy; she also runs periodic clothing and crop swaps. "It's all about cutting out the middleman," she said. "I think you can live richly without needing a lot of money."

To learn more about the East Bay Food Swaps, and to sign up for info on future events, visit EBCASwaps.Blogspot.com.

Make Westing's Chef at Noble Cafe **

Oakland's Noble Cafe made headlines earlier this year for its efforts to become the first carbon-neutral coffee shop in the country. Owner Dimitri Thompson implemented a variety of carbon-reduction and -offset techniques, like giving money to the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department and using the first green-certified espresso machine in the country (a 47-percent electricity reduction over conventional machines).

Every little detail is eco-conscious, including reclaimed wood tables, chairs, and floors; LED 20-watt lightbulbs; on-site composting; and vows made by Thompson's employees to only walk, bike, or use public transport to get to work. You have to admire that kind of commitment, even if it seems a little theatrical for a simple coffee shop.

I never really considered Noble Cafe a restaurant, per se. They run a minimal food program — a little soup and salad and granola — but coffee's really the thing. Well, that and eco-consciousness.

I had a meeting recently at Noble and was surprised by a few things. One, the atmosphere seemed almost like a boutique hair salon, replete with mood lighting and global beats (I had expected a crunchier Berkeley-style vibe). Two, it was less overtly message-focused than anticipated. Three, my Cuban sandwich, made with Gruyère, sliced pork, and tomato/bell pepper spread on a fresh-baked roll, was tasty.

Chef Melinda Vaca, the talented craftswoman behind Make Westing's sandwich program, was recently hired to expand Noble Cafe's limited menu. To coincide with her arrival, Thompson is talking with The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley and a variety of local farms to source quality organic meats and produce. Sandwiches will include a chicken katsu with daikon slaw, pickled ginger, and black garlic aioli; albacore tuna confit with cucumber, radish, and dill aioli; fennel sausage and broccoli rabe with pecorino and chipotle; pork belly with root vegetable purée, lemon, and chili flakes; and chickpea and roasted vegetables with tzatziki and sumac onion.

Additionally, Vaca has designed a handful of fancy salads and pizzas. The salads will include one with satsuma, dates, and mint, and another with oranges, caraway crème, and roasted beets and carrots. A couple of the pizzas also sound quite intriguing — calamari, chorizo, and cilantro and hot coppa, melon, and sage. I'm curious to see if she can pull them off.

Thompson feels lucky to have the new chef on board, calling her "an up and coming bright new star" of the Oakland food scene. Since Vaca is still at Make Westing, she won't be working on-site at Noble, but she plans to audition chefs to run its kitchen. Apparently she intends to be very choosy. "It's Melinda's name on the menu, so she has to guarantee everything is being prepared to her standards," Thompson said.

One other tidbit of Noble Cafe news: Thompson is currently waiting for his beer and wine license to be approved. When he gets it, he plans to add an outdoor beer garden for up to forty people. I've only tried Vaca's food shrouded in barroom dimness, but I imagine it should pair quite nicely with sunshine.

Update, 4/18: Just kidding about the Noble Cafe stuff. Read an important update to the story here.

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