Saturday, July 25, 2009


I think my favorite pickle reference in literature is one from a book called The House at Old Vine, by Norah Lofts. It chronicles the centuries of an old country household from the middle ages to modern England, with all its uses along the way. One of its incarnations was as a boys’ school of the earlier years -- one of the grim, cold, chilblains-and-gruel chapters in England's history, times which strengthened or killed off many a male scholar.

The couple running the school meted out barely-sufficient meals, giving the boys the best they could with their meager income, with great pots of overnight-simmered oatmeal scooped into eager bowls, and a flour-and-water mixture which was mixed with a scant few eggs and scrambled for special days. There's a line something like "the boys called it cowshit but ate it eagerly anyway."

But the great reward, the best-of-the-best, awarded for valor or grades or success on the playing field, was a turn at the pickle-barrel. The brine in that barrel was aged and ageless -- the housewife had tossed in rinds, bits of raw vegetables, green plums and knotty apples, purposely-cultivated cucumbers and squash, with nary a concern for suitability or sanitation. Many a paragraph is devoted to the coveting, the enjoying, the maneuvering of that long fork in the jealously-guarded try at getting the biggest piece onto the tines.

A cucumber was a prize; a bit of gourd or squash, second place, but a fist-sized pickled onion -- Grail. No imagination needed to understand the great hunger for such a tangy, salty bite, or the guarded, greedy relish with which it was devoured. Words aren't required to convey the bright-eyed, lusty joy with which the boys tucked into the dripping prize. The bland, floury food, the grain-stapled diet, the greasy boiled bacon -- what a treat to bite into a juicy, sour, salty pickle. Just the thought gives an under-tongue tingle akin to sniffing the French's jar.

The prevalence of bland food in so many novels also brings to mind an unforgettable passage in one of the James Herriot books, involving boiled bacon---a great fat-laden wet plateful of it--- which he, the guest, was expected to down. With his humble host and hostess looking eagerly on, his only salvation was a big glass of Scotch and a dish of pickled onions.

I know only the Southern standards, the old recipes, though my refrigerator harbors at any time five or six kinds; a quart Tupperware of turmeric-yellowed thin-sliced crisp sweet onions in a mild brine is a yearly gift from a friend. Some little round Kirbys are in a sesame/rice vinegar soak right now, to go with the lovely baby bok choy I'll stir-fry for supper. In a flat fridge-dish, some sliced beets, straight from a can, are bleeding their juices into a handful of sugar, a dash of vinegar, and three cloves.

And, since our move to the city with all its markets and restaurants and shops with their wonderful, exotic offerings, we’ve learned the joys of kimchee, with its sour tang punctuated by the scattered bits of peppery redness; the little dish of quarter-sliced cucumber in its own special brew of rice vinegar, sesame oil, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, which is set down in welcome, along with about a dozen other offerings, even before we order at our favorite Korean restaurant.

We linger at the cipollini tubs in the big supermarket, with their purples and greens and matching aromas; we dip from the tumble of fat juicy jalapenos and olives of every hue in the spectrum; we enjoy tastes and savors and vegetables we learned of only after we moved here.

My own history of pickles is a very narrow slice. But they're the ones I know, the ones I continue to make, the ones that have been passed down through many vine-and-brine-chapped hands, and I'm proud of all of them. But I do love to find a new vegetable, a new brine ingredient, a new combination to add to the long, respectable list used by generations of cooks. However, the biggest crock, an elderly ten-gallon ceramic beauty, has been retired from years of holding eye-stinging brine and bushels of curing vegetables. It now rests in the hosta bed under the huge backyard tree all summer, support for a pretty octagon of marble which holds the biggest parlor fern.

In winters past, the longing for something green consumed many an hour amongst people with no way to preserve any kind of salad ingredient, and no hope save spring for a crisp, fresh taste. The wonderful, rich savors of Southern cooking, the pot of greens enhanced by a few drops from the bottle of pepper sauce; the soft, salt-and-pork seasoned vegetables, the great pots of dried beans with several meaty ham hocks falling from the bone, the crusty pan of steaming cornbread -- all needed just that touch of vinegary, tangy pickle to make the meal complete and satisfying.

In my own home, I can think of no treasure save for pictures of the children and grandchildren, or our enormous walls of books, which could provide the contentment and feeling of wealth and accomplishment as those shelves of homemade pickles.

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