The kitchen shelves glimmer with jars of homemade preserves after a summer’s worth of gardening, harvesting, and putting up. Clove-scented beets glow deep garnet, and the cauliflower sparkles crystalline, bejeweled with tiny bright-red–and lethally hot–Thai peppers. Zucchini pickles stack up right next to the oven-roasted tomato sauce. Strawberry and wild-blueberry preserves glisten in their glass cases like gemstones, awaiting syrupy slides down midwinter bowls of vanilla ice cream or late-night waffles.
Freshly jarred applesauce, spiked with a bit of vanilla and just a splash of brandy, cools off from its recent dip in the hot-water canner bath. Honey dills, bread-‘n’-butters, sweet-and-sours, gherkins, mustard pickles, and relishes: Everything is here.
Everything except the tiny pickles my grandmother used to put up in glass jars with glass lids and rubber seals, the ones she’d set on the wobbly wooden cellar stairs in expectation of family dinners around the old oak table, its wooden length stretched by innumerable leaves and warmed by the wood-fired cookstove.
I’ve spent the summer canning and preserving. Each evening, after a day’s worth of picking, peeling, boiling, and packing, I listen attentively for that satisfying pop as each lid expels the last of the air trapped in the jar, creating a safe, long-lasting vacuum, one that ensures that garden-picked taste deep into winter. But there’s no satisfaction when it comes to the itty-bitty sour pickles I’m craving.Those sure and dependable pickles, small but steadfast, were passed around the table at every gathering. Cheek-suckingly sour and smaller than my childhood fingers, they were a required element of the New England boiled dinners that so often appeared at the table along with sons and daughters, aunts and uncles and cousins. Part of their taste was the challenge of fishing the little things out of the jar; you might think you had a good hold on one, but then, like a shimmering fish, it would slip through your fingers and splash back into the briny depths. But, oh, once caught and brought to your lips …
I still recall the shock of sour at first bite, how the vinegar squirted over my tongue, and the exquisite tingling, making my mouth water with abandon. But, try as I might, I cannot duplicate the bracing flavor of my grandmother’s pickles. The recipe is lost.
If I’d known, as a child, that I’d spend an entire summer trying to find that mysterious combination of snap, sour, and surprise, I would have asked her for the recipe and carefully copied it down in my best third-grade penmanship. But I never thought there might come a day when there would be no pickles lined up on the cellar stairs, or that grandmothers, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles and cousins would disappear one by one from the table.
Still, the tongue remembers: a bite of the past, a spoonful of memory, a taste of home. Once the pickles even showed up out in the woods at my uncle’s sugar shack when the grownups made a traditional sugar-on-snow party for the kids. Like my young cousins, at the time I found the concept of balancing sweet with sour an absurd idea, but I was mesmerized by the unexpected appearance of that familiar jar.
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.
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).