Honey, what did you swap for dinner tonight?
Julia and Wendy Alexander recently swapped five servings of bluefish with Moroccan couscous for five servings of spinach lasagna on a recent Saturday. They also traded pasta with chicken and artichoke hearts for a rich chili made with ground beef, bacon and chocolate.
The domestic partners have scored other tasty lunches and dinners through the Brooklyn Dinner Collective, a dinner co-op the two started in October of last year.
But the system isn’t perfect.
There are 45 members on meetup.com, but only one or two generally show up for the weekly supper swaps, which usually take place at 5 p.m. each Saturday.
“Getting started is the hardest part,” said Wendy Alexander, a drama teacher at an elementary school in Harlem. “But it’s such a good idea. So much of it is about saving time, energy and money.”
Each week, the Alexanders know they will meet someone different. They’d like to find members who come to the swaps consistently, but they haven’t been discouraged yet.
“It’s so much more cost effective to make a meal that feeds five people, than it is to make a meal for two,” Wendy Alexander added. “Plus you get all of your cooking done in one shot. How could you beat that? We just need more people to show up each week.”
Dinner co-ops, sometimes called supper swaps, are serving up friendships and fellowship across the country. Some members cook together; others cook in their own kitchens. Some meet weekly, others monthly. Some are vegetarian, others are vegan.
They all give busy families an easy and economical answer to the age-old question: What’s for dinner?
Here’s how a dinner co-op works. On your day to cook, you prepare a meal for you and your friends. Keep one meal for yourself and exchange the rest with the members of your co-op. For the rest of the week, depending on how many people participate in your co-op, you can sit back and relax, as your meals are already prepared for you.
The system is so popular, it’s conjured up a covey of experts.
Diana Ellis, Alex Davis and Andy Remeis, of Boise, Idaho, authors of “Dinner at Your Door,” have headed their own cooking circles for years. In Dalton, Ohio, Trish Berg, author of “The Great American Supper Swap,” has been exchanging her chicken pot pie with fried apples for beef and cheese burritos for the past five years. And Ginny Bowie of Hanover, Va., who has been cooking co-op style for the past 20 years, has produced a DVD to teach others how they can get their own dinner co-op started.
“Imagine you have three or four kids and you work,” said Bowie, who swaps meals weekly. “How are you going to feed all these people?
“You’ve got the coach. You’ve got the quarterback. You’ve got this team of individual personalities. And when all the meals have been handed over successfully, that’s your touchdown.”
But Patrice Travis of Mansfield, Mass., who started a monthly supper swap because she and her husband were eating out too much, said that not every meal scores. One month a member made garden vegetable tofu.
“My dog wasn’t begging for that one,” said Travis.
The Brooklyn Dinner Collective is open to all kinds of meals. It welcomes vegetarian and vegan meals, even though the Alexanders prefer to have meals made with meat.
The Alexanders recently added two new members to their dinner co-op.
Hope Feifer, a self-described pescetarian who eats fish but no other meat, brought a large bowl of spinach salad with red onion, mushrooms, pine nuts and sliced oranges. Jen Berkley brought a pan of spinach lasagna.
Feifer and Berkley said they thought the collective was more like a potluck dinner. Luckily, the Alexanders had plenty of Tupperware to remedy the misunderstanding.
“So does that mean we’re not going to eat the lasagna?” said Berkley, as she peeled the foil from the top of the dish, revealing the noodles and melted cheese.
“We’re definitely going to try the lasagna,” said Wendy Alexander, as she spooned the salad into plastic containers. “It just looks too yummy. But afterward we’ll pack the rest up in Tupperware. We’ll swap our bluefish and couscous dish for the lasagna and salad.”
Berkley, who took two subway trains and a shuttle bus to get to the Brooklyn apartment from her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, arrived an hour late. She said she would consider starting a dinner co-op in her neighborhood.
“I’m just as happy if people are starting their own dinner collectives,” said Julia.
“No!” said Wendy. “We want you in our club. OK, OK. I’m kidding. If we inspire our friends to start their own dinner co-ops, we’re happy. We’re not haters.”
Ever the gracious hosts and dinner co-op supporters, the Alexanders had made ground beef tacos to share with their fellow swappers.
The four sat around the oval dining room table off the Alexander’s tiny kitchen, eating tacos, salad and spinach lasagna. Then, Julia Alexander passed around fresh-baked and frosted chocolate cupcakes in reusable silicone cups.
Feifer, eating her cupcake with a spoon, proclaimed herself a “little piggy.” The thin redhead had, after all, eaten two tacos filled with beans instead of beef, a small piece of spinach lasagna and salad. All at once, the idea of the dinner co-op seemed to click for her.
Feifer bounced as she dipped her spoon into the cupcake. “I’m going to have lunch already packed for the week,” she said, “and it’s already in perfect portions.”
Wendy Alexander smiled at Feifer, as a teacher might smile at a pupil who had just mastered a tough concept. “That’s right,” she said. “Whenever you feel hungry, you can have food in five minutes.”