A Tale of Two Pickles
My partner has his own pickle ghost: half-sours put up in an earthen crock by his Polish aunt and set in the cool basement to ripen and turn. On visits he would pad quietly downstairs with his brother, and together they’d sneak as many of the big dills as their little hands and stomachs could handle. Careful to replace the stoneware plate that held the pickles submerged in their brine, the two boys thought they were very clever. Cioci (Auntie) never said a word, but simply kept the crock filled with cucumbers picked from her large and well-tended garden.
This summer we tried to make Cioci’s pickles, too. But had she kept the crock covered with cheesecloth or a heavy lid? Did she leave the stem ends of the cukes intact, as we’d read in some recipes, and shave off a bit from the blossom end? Or include a grape leaf for extra crunch? The memory was mostly about sneaking the pickle, not making it.
Our first try was a salty disaster. Another batch seemed to hold some promise but then suddenly turned to mush. Ultimately, after reading dozens of variations on making pickles in a crock, we realized that we were following the steps to make a finished pickle when what we really wanted was something more immediate and clandestine, something forbidden: a pickle that would make our hearts pound as we reached for it.
So we’ve spent the summer in a pickle, trying to recapture the salty crunch of Cioci’s half-sours and the compact zing of Gram’s little cornichons. The tricky part was that each of us was trying to resurrect not just a pickle but a pickled memory. The challenge was how to add to the crock the thrill of sneaking a bite, or to stir in the damp, earthy smell of a dirt-floor cellar.
We persisted. Taste, memory, and emotion seemed to combine with increasing intensity at every bite. We evaluated the nuance and complexity of each new batch as if it were a fine wine. “Initially quite sour, this pickle opens slowly to reveal salty, earthy undertones,” one of us might opine. Or: “A bit plump, but seductive, with a long, steely finish. Impressive nose, peppery, it promises to taste even better in three months.” For as long as the garden kept pumping out cucumbers, we were students of the briny, the bitter, and all things biting. We spent hours delineating taut from crisp, and crisp from crunchy, and debating the subtle differences between tart and tangy.
Sour, it turns out, has a split personality. There’s the good sour, the one that adds perk and pizzazz to our otherwise bland diet. And then there’s the evil-twin sour, the one that spoils our food. We refer to bad feelings as “sour grapes,” but we intentionally make any number of other fruits, veggies, and proteins sour, pickling pigs’ feet, flower buds, or hard-boiled eggs. Not even the little sardine can escape our passion for pucker.
Sour milk in the carton is something you don’t want to slog into your morning coffee or tea, but home bakers have long practiced the art of clabbering, or souring raw milk on purpose for a recipe, to produce a tart flavor and ensure a tender crumb. Whenever she made doughnuts, Gram always soured the milk. Cioci performed a similar bit of alchemy when she whisked cream into her vinegary beet soup, creating a shockingly pink and velvety borscht. Sour, when we’re on its good side, can perform miracles. The pickle, for example: cucumber plus vinegar plus salt and spice. Somehow it all adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
So the power of sour is something our grandparents understood well. But I find myself wondering whether there might be more to sourness than simple preservation, and women like Gram and Cioci knew what that was. Whatever they put up in those gleaming glass jars, whether brined or vinegared, was not only sustaining but symbolic. It was the present carried into the future: a certain hopefulness, perhaps. Or, maybe they canned as a way of remembering the past.
Gram outlived her husband by decades, having attended to him in his wheelchair for the last years of his life. She stood stoically by first the graveside of her infant child, then her grown son’s, and finally that of her daughter, my mother. Sometimes I wonder whether, when she soured the milk for her doughnut batter, she was thinking of them. As a child, I watched her make those doughnuts any number of times. I’d stand on a chair next to the counter and follow her hands as she whipped up a batch from memory. I’d imagine we were scientists as she stirred a tablespoon of vinegar into the measuring cup of milk and waited for the predictable results. When she’d add a pinch of grated nutmeg to the batter, we became explorers returning with fragrant spices from faraway lands. Often, she’d hand me the tin cutter, and I’d stamp out the floppy, concentric circles of dough in preparation for their deep-fry dip in the hot lard.
In my mind’s eye, I can see her making chocolate cake, cinnamon buns, fresh doughnuts, oatmeal cookies, even fudge, but I never actually saw her put up those little pickles; they simply ghosted their way onto the cellar stairs. So I’ve searched all summer to find the secret ingredient, trying various concoctions of vinegars, incantatory grape leaves, conjuring roots, seeds of hope. I never thought to measure in longing or the understanding of just how short the growing season is, how moments linger for such a short time. Or that some are all too brief, and begin to flicker and fade, unless we can somehow preserve them.