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A Tale of Two Pickles

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.

A portion of this essay appeared under the title “Preservation” in the anthology Cupcakes on the Counter: The Stoves & Stories of Our Families, edited by RaeAnn Proost (2009).

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