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'Like penpals, but with snacks!' Unable to travel, strangers mail each other tastes of home

One of the best bits of travel was always the food. Or, more specifically, the junk food – the brightly coloured boxes of Pocky in a Japanese 7-Ele

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One of the best bits of travel was always the food. Or, more specifically, the junk food – the brightly coloured boxes of Pocky in a Japanese 7-Eleven, the rows of uncharted chip flavours in a foreign supermarket.

It’s a delight Australians are unlikely to get to experience in 2021. But in one corner of the internet, hungry citizens are keeping the joy of international snacks alive – border closures be damned.

On r/SnackExchange, Reddit users assemble to trade the sugary and salty delights of their homeland via mail. The premise is simple: first, you find someone on the board to swap with. You then post each other a box full of your country’s finest processed foods, eventually uploading photos of your haul on the board for others to see. As one user told Guardian Australia: “It’s like penpals, but with snacks!”

First created in 2010, r/SnackExchange predates the pandemic. Its membership now totals 102,000. Most come to experience snacks they can’t find at home – matcha Oreos from Hong Kong, maple leaf cookies from Canada – but others arrive desperately seeking the treat they ate one time on holidays and haven’t been able to forget.

For the Redditors who take part in snack exchanges, it’s a way to learn more about the world.

Snacks including chocolate bars, Tim Tams and Wizz Fizz
Snacks mailed to a US resident, Meghan Quallick, from Melbourne in Australia

“I didn’t realise what we didn’t have until we started doing the snack exchange,” says Meghan Quallick, a four-time snack swapper from Sacramento, California. As well as swaps with a university student in Wales, a man in Scotland and a fellow American in Hawaii, in December 2018 she exchanged snacks with a woman in Melbourne named Alice.

Part of Quallick’s motivation for swapping with an Australian was to get her hands on a specific item: Cadbury Black Forest bars. A colleague of hers had eaten the chocolate block on a trip to Australia in years past and fallen in love, but been unable to source them at home. Quallick’s snack partner included 10 bars of the chocolate in her package, which she was thrilled to pass on. “To get some and bring them to her was pretty exciting,” Quallick said. “My co-worker had tears in her eyes.”

Black Forest bars aren’t the only sought-after Australian snack on r/snackexchange. Among our biggest hits are Shapes, Caramello Koalas, Milo, Violet Crumbles, Cheezels and Twisties. Some swappers even send packages of supermarket-bought lamingtons, tubes of chicken salt or oddities like emu jerky and eucalyptus drops. Sachets of Vegemite regularly feature. Top dog, though, is Tim Tams.

They were one of Meghan’s favourites, too. “I don’t know what it is about them, they’re just – well, they’re perfect, actually,” she says.

“Everyone wants Tim Tams,” affirms Heather Clarke, a snack swapper from Melbourne. “With most Australian exchanges it tends to be heavily chocolate-based: you’ll see blocks of Cadbury, you’ll see your Cherry Ripes.”

From observing posts on the board, Heather says, you get an idea of what flavours aren’t available abroad. “Looking through other American exchanges, they didn’t seem to have sweet chilli and sour cream chips, which are my favourite. So you can sort of guess [what to put in], but at the same time, the polite thing to do is ask, ‘OK, do you have a preference for what I send?’”

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, sweet cereals and Hostess cakes from the United States.
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, sweet cereals and Hostess cakes from the US. Photograph: Heather Clarke

Clarke’s latest swap was with a woman in Texas. As well as the classics, she included liquorice upon request from her partner, who had heard the Australian variety is softer than its US equivalent. For shock factor, she also threw in a packet of musk sticks. “My swapper went, ‘This is the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten. They taste like grandma.’”

Snack exchanges do come with obvious financial drawbacks. Part of the process is to agree on a budget before you swap – Quallick says on average that’s around the US$40-50 mark. But you should “be prepared to spend twice as much on shipping than the actual snacks,” Reddit moderators advise. Occasionally swappers get scammed by partners who don’t deliver on their end of the deal, although there are measures in place to try to prevent this from happening.

“It can be very pricey,” Clarke admits. “But it’s like a hobby, and you don’t really mind spending money on your hobbies.”

Often, the snack exchanges are often about more than just food.

“I like getting physical mail, I’m one of those people who has penpals,” Clarke says. “The packages are an interesting way to do that on a bigger scale. Because it’s not just food exchanges, it’s often cultural exchanges as well. You get people going, ‘What is this? Can you tell me what this is?’”

Often, Redditors enclose instructions on how to best consume the snacks – like the dos and don’ts of eating Vegemite, or a step-by-step guide to completing a Tim Tam slam. Going the extra mile is in the spirit of the community.

“I really like that the community is very wholesome and nice,” Quallick says. “It’s total strangers all over the internet – but if someone is looking for a particular item but doesn’t want to do a full exchange, people will reach out and post a link to where you can buy them online. Everyone seems to be very helpful.”

For the moment, a snack exchange is the closest many of us will come to going overseas – Quallick included. “I got a passport just so I could drive up and go to Canada one day to get snacks,” she says, laughing. “But I probably can’t do that for a couple of years now.”