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DIY 2011

Food-swapping, Kate Payne, and The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking

By MM Pack, Fri., Feb. 18, 2011

Kate Payne
Kate Payne
Photo by John Anderson

Late in January, a group of 25 people gathered in a pretty East Austin house. An eclectic crowd, they mostly didn't know one another, but everyone brought handcrafted foods, from preserves to vinegars, breads to dog biscuits, canned chutneys to jewel-toned liqueurs. This was a meet-up of ATXswappers, and attendees traded offerings, shared tastes, and mingled with like-minded folks passionate about handmade food. Everybody went home with edible swag that would have cost a mint to buy.

ATXswappers (www.facebook.com/ATXswappers) is the collective effort of Kate Payne, Megan Myers, and Sarah Binion. Payne, recently returned to Austin from two years in Brooklyn, started BK Swappers there and wanted to spread the joy in Austin. Clearly, the time was ripe: The next ATXswappers convocation filled up within two hours of being posted.

In the current collective consciousness, there's something afoot regarding handcrafting, barter, thrift, pride of accomplishment, and not settling for the mass-produced. Instead of Nineties-style relentless purchasing, it's about making, baking, fixing, mending, growing, canning, reusing, repurposing, and recycling. The mindset is manifested in home gardens, urban chickens, and farmers' markets; home-canning movements (www.canningacrossamerica.com); websites promoting the coolness of craft (www.punkdomestics.com); and satire (Amy Sedaris' latest book, Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People).

Is this the result of unreliable economic times? True, we don't have the same expendable income we once did and don't eat out like we used to. We're learning to stretch a dollar. But frugality aside, other contributing factors include awareness of limited natural resources, food-safety concerns, and satisfaction in working with our hands.

There's historic precedent for widespread cultural impulses toward doing it yourself – sometimes born from necessity, sometimes from aesthetics or principles, sometimes all three. The 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement was a direct response to the industrial revolution steamrolling Britain. During World Wars I and II, Victory Gardens augmented food shortages. Depression-era canning co-ops helped women feed their families via shared produce, facilities, and labor. And in the 1960s-70s, utopian ideals and defiance of the military-industrial complex generated food co-ops, back-to-the-land movements, communal living, organic foods, and a hippie aesthetic of thrift-shop splendor.

So the wheel turns, the zeitgeist is right, and there's a new generation of creative crafters. The biggest difference this time is cyberspace integration – social media provides unprecedented means for collaboration, sharing, and creating online communities alongside crafts.

Payne could be the poster child for the newest wave of do-it-yourselfers. Formerly an indifferent cook, she describes landing in Brooklyn just as the economy tanked. "Foods cost much more than in Austin. I had no steady income and needed to learn how to eat without spending much money. I was a terrible food shopper; I overbought, I bought on impulse, didn't plan, and wasted a lot of good food."

Payne became enchanted with Joy of Cooking. "Their style of presenting recipes, it's really for beginners, and it changed my approach to cooking." She connected with Brooklyn's urban farmers, bakers, canners. She shadowed experts who taught her cooking and preservation techniques.

Nor were her domestic efforts limited to food. "I've always been a homebody," she says. "It's important to make a nice place, even without money. There are ways to inhabit your space that make life better. You don't have to put homemaking on hold until you can afford X, Y, or Z. There's a lot you can do right now. Not everybody understands this, but a lot of it is that people don't know how to make things nice. It's basically shifting attention to things you like."

In a write-a-thon benefiting the New York Writers Coalition, Payne began the blog The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking (www.hipgirlshome.com) and broadcast her intention to write a book. "I could see there was a place for me – other people wanted to know how to do things I knew. We're all sitting in our houses with the same issues." And, she adds, "It's not just a girl thing."

In a whirlwind series of events, everything came together. An agent saw the blog and helped with the proposal. Result? HarperCollins releases The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking in April 2011. Look for an Austin booksigning at BookPeople.

There's a healthy dose of gratitude underlying Payne's work. A recent blog post challenges readers to a thank-you letter mail mob. Maybe we should start by thanking Payne for inspiration toward happy self-sufficiency.


Kate Payne will teach canning classes at Faraday's Kitchen Store, March 5 & 12 (www.faradayskitchenstore.com/cooking.html). For instructions on hosting a food swap, see www.hipgirlshome.com/foodswaps.

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