Joys of Pickling

By C. Jeanette Tyson
Illustrations by Matt Lynaugh

Aunt Frances said to pull one from the bottom, so I did—dove through the murky syrup, hooked one with my fork and ate it straight from the jar. Crisp as a cotton sheet snapping on a summer line, just-this-side-of-cloyingly sweet…good…though not exactly the pickled watermelon rinds I remembered from my youth. I said this out loud.

“Well now…I didn’t make these,” my aunt said, with her own sweet/tart blend of pride and indignation. And that may just be the essence of the new fuss about pickling.

Not to make you drop a stitch or anything, but knitting has been cast off, if you will, as so last-century-Hollywood to make room for the newest tier in the Domestic Arts Renaissance. If you want in on what’s currently hawt, drop the skeins and get your hands on your grandmother’s Ball jars.

Molly Wizenberg, Bon Appétit columnist and creator of the popular blog Orangette (orangette.blogspot.com) was already a long-time pickle lover, but then “along came Brandon,” Molly writes in her blog, “who brought with him a strange, slightly unnerving need for vinegar. When we met, he owned somewhere between 24 and 30 types of vinegar, a fact that he cited quite early in the wooing process, and with no small amount of pride.” One night, while the couple dined at a favorite local restaurant, something happened that would ultimately change the course of their future.

“We decided to try the signature rotating pickle plate,” Molly writes. “What arrived looked like a painter’s palette in shades of vinegar and salt: a few strokes of asparagus down the center, a splotch of red peppers, a pink pile of red onions, then golden raisins, button mushrooms, halved shallots, spindly farm-stand carrots, cauliflower stained with curry, even prunes and sea beans, each pickle infused with its own herbs and spices. The word ‘pickled’ feels too dinky to describe what had happened to these vegetables: they were cool to the touch but warmly spiced, with a heady, vaporous flavor that registered sweet and sour at the same time.”

What came next is the stuff of piquant fairy tales: Molly and Brandon decided to invite homemade pickles to their upcoming wedding. “People thought we were crazy to want to do this, to take on yet another project in the midst of The Project to End All Projects,” Molly writes. “I’m so glad we didn’t listen.”

She and Brandon crafted four kinds of pickles for their outdoor reception and distributed the jars on tables as edible decor. With toothpicks skittered across white linens and extra jars carted home by guests, the newlyweds took pride in knowing they’d offered something handmade, personal and unexpected. Yes, love was in the air and on the palette; one guest even offered to set them up in their own pickling business—an offer they’re still considering.

Wizenberg can’t really say why it is that pickling is the new purl two, beyond being delicious, that is. “Food is a way of understanding myself, the people I live with and the way I choose to live,” Molly says, and she supposes the computers, cell phones and hurry-hurry-hurry of modern society might be driving people to crave simpler things invested with real care and a dash of discernment—those that remind us of a slower time.

It may also be the blindingly vast possibilities pickling offers—from fennel, carrots and beets, to green beans, okra and eggplant, the list of potential pickleables goes on and on, even to include, say, nasturtium.

“It tastes like a caper,” says Jesse Griffiths, owner and chef (along with wife, Tamara Mayfield) of Dai Due (daidueaustin.com ), an Austin supper club that celebrates all things locally sourced, organic and sustainable.

Griffiths ponders the idea that there are no real frontiers left in pickling. “You can’t outdo your own grandma,” he says, “but you can introduce New World spices, different chiles, for instance, or something with an Asian flair like ginger. There is much to be experimented with on the continuum between tart and sweet.” And there is much to atone for over the years, as the average jar of pickles on the modern-day grocery shelf is nothing more than a mix of chemicals and flaccid cucumbers.

Griffiths credits at least some of the current passion for pickling with a heightened societal awareness to extend, use and honor every bit of the abundance of one season as a way to get through the bleakness and banality of the next. Grandma would be proud.

“Our collective conscious now equates good food with thrift,” says Griffiths. “We are becoming more careful with our resources, more in tune with the reasons why we should be.” Practically speaking, you can take the watermelon rinds (or the extra green beans, beets, grapes) and throw them in the trash/compost pile, or you can have 15 quarts of something really delicious on your shelf—something to share with guests or show off a little with the antipasti.

And perhaps only in Austin would pickling be compared to music. Griffiths starts his multicourse meals with something pickled alongside something rich: a paté, for instance, or fried quail. “The fat is like the bass; the pickle is the treble,” says Griffiths. “It balances everything out.” It also literally makes you salivate for everything that will follow.

Chef Jessica Maher made pickles for the restaurant Savoy in New York before moving to Austin. She believes the most ambitious restaurants these days are determined to make everything from scratch, even those things considered condiments or garnishes.

“It puts a lot of pressure on the professionals,” she says. “Your pickles had better be good…better, than [the customer] can make.” Maher recommends Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Pickling for full immersion into the art, and a personal tip: use vegetables only at their peak, otherwise your pickles will be soggy.

If the current trendiness, the process, the overflowing baskets or the boiling of jars put you off, Maher says, in effect, just give it the old Barton Springs jump: It’ll only be a shock for a minute or two, then you’ll cotton to it—much like an ice-cold, jaw-drawing pickle on a hot summer day.