[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 6 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Soul Food.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
When we moved my great-grandmother from her peach-colored apartment—that had a stunning view of Florida’s intracoastal, a place where we would try to catch puffer fish by the dock or if we were really bored, play shuffleboard on the outdoor court—to an independent/assisted living situation with salmon-colored walls, my parents took home all the extra furniture and a number of cardboard boxes full of mementos. There were jewelry boxes of bracelets, necklaces, brooches, and clip-on earrings. There were her very many gloves for every occasion, dainty and too small for the hands of my sister or me. And in one box, there were old books and cookbooks. I remember poring over them, especially the cookbooks, trying to connect the great-grandmother I saw once a year to the woman who wrote in the margins of her cookbooks and who saved every dill pickle recipe she found from what seemed every newspaper she happened to read. There were probably twenty, if not more, recipes for dill pickles, cut from the Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press, Ladies Home and Gardens Journals, and whatever the precursor magazines to Real Simple or Bon Appetit were. The recipes puzzled me. They were cut out and randomly slipped between yellowing pages of an aging copy of The Joy of Cooking. These newspaper recipes were all for pickles, a condiment I’m not ever sure I saw my great-grandmother or my great-grandfather (who had died eight years earlier) eat or talk about, dill or otherwise. What woman (or man) would save multiple recipes for something they never ate or never served or never made?When we taste a pickle, part of us toasts all the times in life when we enjoyed the best of the harvest even while we remember those times we were rubbed in salt, maybe even with open wounds burning.
Legends about my great-grandparents were many. They lived in Detroit during the Great Depression. My great-grandfather was extremely tall, and my great-grandmother, extremely short. They lived with both of their mothers in a little Tudor cottage east of the Redford suburb of Detroit. One was a widow due to her husband losing everything when the banks crashed on Black Tuesday (or so the family stories go). The other mother was something of a scandal then, a divorced, independent woman who, in the 30s, drove her own car, making society heads turn.
I’m sure my great-grandparents had a victory garden, and they must have scrimped and saved and preserved like everyone else at that time. Food was precious and had to be stretched. Leftovers were the norm, which was why my grandma never served leftovers, at least for my grandfather. She’d send the potatoes with rosemary, the lamb with mint sauce, and flourless brownies home with guests, in perfectly packaged Tupperware. Preparing food was one of her gifts. I don’t think of my grandma, but in her yellow kitchen, making a meal that requires every one of her pots. Stuffed Endives. Chicken Fricassee. Asian Broccoli Cole Slaw. Lemon Meringue Pie. Swedish Rum Cake. Local family legend tells that her sandwiches and brown-bag lunches were so good, my uncle got away with taking two to school: one to eat, the other to sell. Some of that magic of food was passed to me. Like my grandma, one of my favorite places to work is the kitchen. She grew up in the kitchen, with her two grandmothers, mother, and sister in tow, all teaching her how to cook and serve delightful dishes. Home cooking, canning, and pickling is what people did. And then, like everyone else, when the Depression was over, when the war was over, they switched to buying store bought, just for the thrill.
So why pickles? Why keep a dozen pickle recipes in a faded cookbook, if, in your old age, you’re past gardens and canning, when you’ve retired to sun and water and going out with the bridge club on Tuesdays? Why keep recipes of pickles? Of all recipes to keep? What is it about pickles?
I married into a central Floridian family where pickle juice is “drank” straight-up from the jar. A meal is not complete without an assortment of pickles on the table: spicy, sweet, bread and butter, and a few dill varieties. During Christmas, there are special plates reserved for assortments of pickles, the spicier the better. Deb, from Smitten Kitchen—one of the best recipe blogs on the Internet—can relate. She talks about her husband’s family obsession with pickles in her post “Giardiniera” (that’s Italian for garden pickles):
“I got a real hoot (yup, said it) out of Molly’s entry a few weeks ago as her significant other and mine are clearly plucked from similar brine, that is, packed with a penchant for the pickled. (I’ll be here all week.).
“One of the first big family events Alex took me to shortly after we began dating was a 55th birthday party for his father, no small affair, at a Russian restaurant. Course after course, platters arrived with pickled celery, lettuce and—I kid you not—watermelon to accompany the smoked fish, dumplings, caviar and all sorts of gamey meats. . . . I think it’s part of the fun for them, luring these newcomers in and watching them nod off at the table after too many sour cream-laden crepes and a misbegotten belief that they can handle their vodka like those from the old country. In fact, one of his family’s favorite stories to retell is when Alex brought home a friend from grad school and his mother laid out her typical 20-dish, 6-course feast (‘I am worried I will not have enough food.’) including their favorite, pickled tomatoes. The friend had bragged that he couldn’t wait to try them, as they sounded delicious, but nearly spat his first bite across the table: ‘I didn’t know it was going to taste like a pickle!’ he frantically tried to cover his tracks with while they laughed and laughed.“
Both of my children ate whole pickles with relish (badabang) by the age of 1 or whenever they had enough teeth to munch it, which ever came first. To this day, we give them whole cucumbers, and they eat them like carrots. I thought this was a cute Southern quirk, this obsession with pickles, until I remembered the mystery of my very Midwestern great-grandparents and their extensive dill pickle recipe collection. I pictured by grandmother and great-grandmother toting their dill pickles, chicken salad, and deviled eggs to their country club friend’s potlucks by a lake. I envisioned their summers spent canning produce from their gardens or from nearby Michigan farms, boiling the water in a big pot, using salt bags by the pound. I picture my grandmother, with her hair perfectly coiffed, wearing gloves, smelling slightly of gardenias, sitting at a table in the sunroom, cutting out pickle recipes from the daily newspaper.
Pickles are decidedly Midwestern. Pickles are decidedly Southern. They are also decidedly Russian, Jewish, Eastern European, Polish, and Chinese. The French have their cornichons to go with their pâtés. The English call them gherkins; the Swedish, smorgasgurka. German’s have sauerkraut and India has her regional pickled mangoes, lemons, limes, and even eggplant. In Japan, there is daikon. In Korea, kimchi. North Africans add harissa and olives to their pickles. Even South Africa has a unique take on pickles. Pickles are ubiquitous, it seems, to every culture, nation, and state. The need to preserve the fruits and vegetables of summer for winter was once universal, and now, is accessible. Even now, when we have no problems related to surviving long, cold winter months without produce, there’s still something about pickles. Everyone has a pickle story. For better or worse.
All the articles on the Internet claim that pickling most likely started in India, 4,000 years ago when folks left out salted and spiced vegetables and fruit in the sun to destroy bacteria and kick start the anaerobic fermentation needed to preserve the freshest produce of the season. Little has changed in that process, except instead of the sun, one can use hot oil (see Indian recipes above) or you can use canners and hot water baths thanks to John Mason of Mason jar fame who in 1858, figured out how to make glass strong enough to stand boiling water and birthed the explosion of the current canning method. The Japanese make pickles with soy sauce or rice-bran and kelp (kombu) or they use miso and rice wine, whereas as South Asian islanders bury their pickles in holes lined with banana leaves.
All the recipes I’ve read are very clear too: Only pickle the best, only the most whole, the most beautiful, the cream of the crop. Save the best of summer for long nights of winter, when a whiff of summer, is most needed. Or maybe it’s only the best that can withstand the brining process.
I started collecting my own list of pickles, with tips and tricks, from trusted food sources on the Web and in print. Bobby Flay’s recipe for dill pickles from the Food and Wine Archives has way too many ingredients for me, despite the fact this recipe is also in my Best of Food and Wine cookbook that has yet to have a recipe fail me. (As in, no matter how I screw up the recipe, substitute ingredients or pots and pans for “eh, close enough,” the result is delicious.) Another staple in my diet of food recipes, that, yes, I really do read and pore over for pleasure (and sometimes even make) are from Deb and her Smitten Kitchen. Her dill pickles recipe seems simpler and more akin to the recipes my great-grandmother collected. And maybe after this summer crop of cucumbers, I’ll get up the nerve to try it. Her recipe:
8 larger to 10 smaller firm, fresh Kirby (pickling) cucumbers
3 teaspoons kosher, coarse, or pickling salt (if using a featherweight brand such as Diamond, use a little more)
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1/2 cup white vinegar
My other go-to food blog/online recipe collection, with witty words and humor, is Joy the Baker. Here is her Dill Pickle recipe:
2 pounds Kirby or Persian cucumbers
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons pickling salt (I used pure sea salt, see notes in the post above)
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 pinches crushed red pepper flakes
3 teaspoons dill seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
Wash and slice the cucumbers. Leave the skin on, but wash well enough to ensure that there’s no dirt on the cucumbers. Slice into wedge strips or rounds.
In a medium saucepan, bring vinegar, water and pickling salt to a simmer. Once simmering, remove from heat.
Divide the spices between three clean pint jars. Add the sliced cucumbers and pack tightly. You don’t want to pack hard enough to bruise the cucumbers, but make sure they’re as cozy as can be. Pour warm brine into each jar, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace.
Tap the jars on the counter top to loosen and air bubbles. Place lids on the jars and let cool to room temperature before storing in the fridge.
Allow to rest for 2 days before enjoying. Pickles will last up to two weeks.
And then, after I’ve pickled all the various pickles, I can move on to the other foods, such as
Pickled Grapes via Smitten Kitchen, Orangette’s recipe for Red Onions and Gingered Pickle Peaches from Seriouseats.com or the recipe from Trader Joe’s. Everything can be pickled, and maybe one day I’ll sort through all the ways to pickle beans, carrots, cabbage, apples, lemons, peppers, cauliflowers, and tomatoes. I’ll hover over the stove sterilizing glass mason jars and try not to asphyxiate myself with vinegar fumes. I’ll store them all in an old-fashioned cellar—you know, the one like Dorothy’s, that’s out in the backyard—and give jars away to new neighbors for Christmas or to those who just seem like they need a pickle. Pickles will be a way to minister. I have grand dreams about pickles.
Interestingly enough, pickles (okay, cucumbers) were referenced in the Bible, though not really in positive terms. In Numbers, the Israelites were whining and complaining about not having Egyptian delicacies like cucumbers and leeks. In Isaiah, the reference to cucumber is under a title heading “A Rebellious Nation” and the verse goes: “Daughter Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city under siege.” Cucumbers play an important role in history, so it seems.
Linda Ziedrich in her 2009 cookbook The Joy of Pickling reminds us in the section on sauerkraut that there are many health benefits, too, to the pickling process, which may be why pickles have stood the test of time. Pickling cabbage “has fairly high levels of vitamin C—high enough to prevent scurvy in sailors—and some Asian cabbages are very rich in vitamin A… cabbage kimchi, in fact, has much higher vitamin B levels than non fermented Chinese cabbage.” So I’m grateful my kids eat so many pickles. I can scratch scurvy off the lists of childhood diseases to worry about. One source credits Amerigo Vespucci’s success as a sailor to his bringing pickles on board his ships to keep his men healthy. Supposedly, Christopher Columbus followed suit. Athletes drink pickle juice to replenish electrolytes. And why stop there—Ziedrich quotes Salman Rushdie who wrote: “My chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my nocturnal scribblings—by day amongst the pickle vats, by night within these sheets, I spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks” (Midnight’s Children).
Hmm. There is something about pickles. A snack food from of old. Preservation from corruption. Health benefits. Mementos of the summer and sunny days. Is that was it was for my great-grandparents?
My great-grandmother passed away last year at the age of 104. I never did get a chance to ask her about her dill pickle recipes. I still want to know: Were they her mother’s or her mother-in-law’s? And why was she collecting them? But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (or rather the pickle from the jar). I’m here, now collecting pickle recipes of my own, for my own not-completely-explained reasons. I have yet to act on any of these recipes (sometimes recipes need to ferment too, perhaps), but there’s a big old garden in my backyard ready for planting. For the past seven years, I’ve worked the soil and planted sunflowers, tomatoes, okra, carrots, peas, dill, and parsley. I’ve signed up for produce boxes from local farmers, hoping to get as close to the source of food as possible. It is important to me, as important as eating it, that I participate or support directly those who grow what nourishes my family and me. It’s logical that I too would participate in preserving the harvest by pickling—or at least adding it to a list of summer to-dos.
For me, picking my own tomatoes, lettuces, and herbs are a way to take part in the glory of nature. Every Thursday when the produce box arrives (from a company called The Produce Box), there is a joy and thrill from reading about the farmers who have grown my food for me. This is not to say I don’t buy from the store—I do. But it’s when I don’t that I feel this wonderful thrill of beauty and wonder at what the Lord has done. The flavors, the colors, the hard work of planting, watering, weeding. There’s a little bit of J. R. R Tolkien’s hobbits in me, you know the “unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside [is] their favorite haunt.” Add second breakfast, eleven-sies, gardens to indulge the senses of God’s good gifts, my short height, and a tendency to be barefoot—why I’m practically a Baggins.
Tolkien also wrote, in his book On Fairy Stories, about sorrow and tragedy, brine and salt, if you will, and the hard crunch of joy found in happy endings:
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
I like to think the peculiar quality of a eucatastrophe tastes like a pickle. The sour, acidic notes of salt and crunch prick our taste buds to remind us of sorrows, those tears we’ve shed or bitter blows we’ve suffered, but have not been defeated by. There’s a preservation of summer, of sun, of light and joy, in a pickle jar too. And with all those high levels of vitamin C, B, and K, they nourish us with those vitamins and nutrients that we need, vitamins that help repair us.
Sorrow. Bitterness. Tears. Sweat. Divorce. Depression. Widowhood. These are experiences common to all people, across all cultures, across all times. We all have tastes buds. We recognize the sour flavors of life on this earth. We have all shed sweat and tears doing this thing we call living and have made it some days, have fallen others. I think when we taste a pickle, part of us toasts all the times in life when we enjoyed the best of the harvest even while we remember those times we were rubbed in salt, maybe even with open wounds burning. Pickles remind us that there is more that unites us than divides us. We all have tastes buds. We all have pickle stories. We may all have secret or not-so-secret family pickle recipes.
Tolkien also wrote that “the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story—and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”
Some of us search for a eucatastrophe in story, some in song, some in film or visual art, but I like to think that some of us also search for it in food. And in my family, I think we search for it in pickles.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.
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