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Meet Noëlle, Holiday Swap Organizer and Evolutionary Biologist

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Day 2 of our 30 Days of Thoughtful Giving, an interview with our Holiday Swap organizer extraordinaire.

Five years ago, Food52er Noëlle (a.k.a. enbe) started our Holiday Swap with a simple post on the Hotline, calling for interested participants to join in a holiday food exchange. We’re incredibly grateful that she has continued to work with us on it every year since, and wanted to get to share a little bit about the woman who makes the Holiday Swap possible.

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(Have you signed up this year? There's still time to join in!)

Read on to hear touching stories from past swaps, learn about what an evolutionary biologist actually studies, and find out how a food fight brought her to Food52:

Photo by James Ransom

How were you introduced to Food52?

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I remember this distinctly! In 2010 my friend sent me an article for a “web food fight” squaring off a Cooks Illustrated recipe against a Food52 recipe for sugar cookies. We made both and mrslarkin’s Chewy Sugar Cookies won in our kitchen far and away—and my love of Food52 was born.

The Holiday swap is now a cherished part of the holiday season for hundreds of community members, and it’s all thanks to your initial post on the Hotline calling for interested participants to join in a holiday food exchange! What prompted you to set it up?

Noëlle enjoying Thai food at Kin Khao in San Francisco
Noëlle enjoying Thai food at Kin Khao in San Francisco Photo by Noëlle Bittner

I’m a huge fan of the holiday season as a time to come together and focus on loving the people around you—and total strangers a little extra. With a name like Noëlle, it comes with the territory.

When the swap began, I was living in Tucson and enviously watching great in-person Food52 cookie parties and events from afar. I knew there must be other people like me who wanted to participate in the Food52 community but didn’t have any local events. Thus, with inspiration from other swaps like the Reddit Secret Santa and the encouragement of some wonderful community members on the Hotline, the swap was born! I thought it would be a one-off but here we are, five years later, and it has grown into something I could have never dreamed and is one of my favorite parts of the holiday season.

A Step-by-Step Guide for Participating in Our Community-Wide Holiday Swap
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A Step-by-Step Guide for Participating in Our Community-Wide Holiday Swap

What have been some of your favorite stories from the Swap over the years?

I’m encouraged to do this swap because every year I get a few really touching emails that remind me that we could all use a little extra joy from afar during the holidays.

There are a couple especially poignant ones, like the heartfelt, thankful email I got from a community member who had just moved to a new state, wasn’t able to travel home for the holidays, and was feeling very alone. She said her swap package was the most festive part of the holidays and essential in easing her transition to a new place.

Another on of my favorites was when I let it slip in an email to a participant (raymomn) that his swapee (beyondcelery) was due to have her baby girl imminently. He had just had a newborn of his own and sent along some homemade apple sauce made from his father-in-law’s apple harvest and a charming onesie. As the story goes, beyondcelery saved the applesauce as her daughter’s first food. I just love this story because of its thoughtfulness, serendipity, and complete generosity.

As you can tell, occasionally I get overly involved in people’s exchanges. Often I hear from people a year later saying they would love to but can’t participate in the swap the next year because they or their family member is very sick, or they’ve had a huge event in their lives, or any number of things and I love that people feel comfortable sharing these intimate moments. It warms my heart to know we are a little corner of the internet where “strangers” can share their lives. Of course, I’ve loved putting together packages every year and have received the best packages each and every year (I still dream of mrslarkin’s Crack Cookies). A few generous swap members even sent me extra packages as a thank you—how can you not love the generosity and caring of this community?!

 11 Heartfelt Gifts That Can Be Yours This Year
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11 Heartfelt Gifts That Can Be Yours This Year

Tell us a little bit more about yourself! Where are you from, where do you live now…

I’m originally from Brooklyn, where my parents and sister still live, and I moved to Berkeley, CA about four years ago. The produce is endless, the food exciting, wine country is an hour away, and some of the most incredible mountains, deserts, and ocean views are within driving distance—it’s a great place to live for a while. I live here with my pet mouse, Melvin (no, I’m not a crazy mouse lady but yes, this mouse needed a home) and some great roommates—who I sometimes convince to participate in the swap (but otherwise they just benefit from all the cookies I’m making)!

We know you’re a full-time PhD student, where are you in the process?

I’m a year or two away from a PhD in evolutionary biology studying how evolution has shaped the genomes of a few rodent species across the world to be exquisitely adapted to living in desert environments and coping with the consequences of extreme water stress. It takes me out to the Sonoran desert, the Great Basin desert, and over the Sierra Nevadas for field work, but otherwise a little of my work is in the lab and most of my time is working with large data sets at my computer.

Noëlle doing field work and the Great Basin Desert, one of her field sites. Photos by Noëlle Bittner

Working on a PhD is a quite the accomplishment—and time commitment—do you find it possible to cook much for yourself?

Like many of us busy folks, between research, meetings, and my teaching load, barely unless I remember to make time for it. Otherwise, I eat a lot of roasted tofu and veggies, soup, or weekend leftovers, with staples like kale and quinoa pilaf mixed in.

Food is one of my favorite ways to bring people together so I like to focus my cooking efforts on having big groups of people over for dinner as often as possible—calling them dinner parties would connote a little more organization and finesse than these gatherings often have but with food, tons of wine, and loved ones, what’s better?

Case in point, a cake Noëlle made for her best friend's wedding.
Case in point, a cake Noëlle made for her best friend's wedding. Photo by Noëlle Bittner

I also bake a lot of cakes. I’ve taken on the role of birthday cake baker for my lab group; any time a birthday rolls around, I bring in a cake—as you can tell, I like celebrating.

What are some of your all-time favorite Food52 recipes? And which ones will be gracing your Thanksgiving table this year?

I have shelves of cookbooks but despite that, I always come to Food52 for inspiration. The kale and quinoa pilaf I just mentioned is a standard—simple treasures like that kept me coming back to Food52 early on.

Lizthechef’s Spinach Gratin has been at my Thanksgiving table for at least the past four years, as have many of the recipes for cranberry sauce (my secret favorite part of the meal). The Canal House’s Cranberry-Port Gelée will be there this year as will mrslarkin’s Apple Pie or drbabs’s Ginger Apple Torte—that may be a game-time decision.

A number of Genius Recipes: Yoram Ottolenghi’s Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant Sauce is one of my favorite summer treats, in the same vein, Alice Waters’ Ratatouille plus some polenta and feta or mascarpone is my favorite thing to throw together on summer vacations away since it can be put together in any rental kitchen and is always the perfect meal. Paul Bernoulli’s Cauliflower Soup is actually genius.

Rivka’s Mujaddara was brought by TWO people to the Food52’s cookbook launch potluck I had in Tucson many years ago and it remains a favorite… I just can’t decide! I found Food52 a few years out of college when I was really experimenting with my style of cooking—it was probably more formative than I realize!

Give some of Noëlle's favorites a try:

One Pot Kale and Quinoa Pilaf

One Pot Kale and Quinoa Pilaf by deensiebat

Spinach Gratin

Spinach Gratin by Lizthechef

Canal House's Cranberry-Port Gelée

Canal House's Cranberry-Port Gelée by Genius Recipes

Truly Scrumptious Apple Pie

Truly Scrumptious Apple Pie by mrslarkin

Ginger Apple Torte

Ginger Apple Torte by drbabs

Yotam Ottolenghi's Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant Sauce

Yotam Ottolenghi's Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant Sauce by Genius Recipes

Mujaddara with Spiced Yogurt

Mujaddara with Spiced Yogurt by Rivka

Paul Bertolli's Cauliflower Soup

Paul Bertolli's Cauliflower Soup by Genius Recipes

Check out Noëlle's recipes here, and sign up for the holiday swap if you haven't already. Tell us your best tales from swaps past in the comments!


Our magical menu genie will plan your holiay feast for you.

Tags: holiday swap, community, food52ers, 30 Days of Thoughtful Giving