(I am writing, a lot. I hope some of you are still around to read.)
When I was seven my friend Carolyn lived at the end of the road in a big old white house shaded under huge maple trees. Her house was more interesting to play in after school when our parents were at work than my house was, because her house was older and larger than my house, and it had more corners and places to explore, but mostly because it wasn’t my house. And so we rode our bikes up and down the street, and we climbed the maple trees in her yard, and we explored the basement and attic and other back corners of her house, and then one day while we we exploring we found the old jars of pickles at the back of the pantry closet behind the kitchen stairs.
There were two jars of dill pickles, big half-gallon mason jars we could barely lift out of the closet and onto the kitchen counter. We didn’t know how old the jars were, and there was no one else around in the house to tell us. The tops of the jars were furry with dust and although there were labels on the jars the writing had faded so we couldn’t see the dates. Inside the jars there were whole pickles, packed tightly, and if we tipped the jars on their sides we could see garlic and peppercorns and whole spiky brown heads of dill seed through the cloudy brine.
I loved pickles. Pickles were my favorite snack. I ate jars and jars of canned cucumber pickles from the store, picking out the last pickles with a fork and then drinking the brine as well. At delis we sometimes found big glass jars of pickles on top of the counter, the sours and half-sours, the pickles suspended in brine like mad scientist torture experiments in vegetables. I always stepped up and asked for a sour dill pickle, and the counter man would look at my mother and ask, “are you sure?” When my mother agreed the counter man would reach deep into the jar with a big pair of long-handled grippers and then lean way over the counter to hand it to me, still dripping with pickle juice, wrapped up in a little piece of wax paper. Full sour dill pickles were so green they looked like they would glow in the dark, so large they took two hands to hold, and so sour they made me squish up my face with every bite. It would take me all afternoon to eat a sour pickle, and my teeth would ache for for another day after that. It would be many years later before I grew to appreciate the spicy, salty, crunchy half-sours, but I always loved a full sour pickle. Eating sour pickles was always an adventure.
The pickles Carolyn and I found in the closet behind the stairs didn’t look much like deli pickles. They had faded to a pale greenish grey, and they were smaller and curved to fit into the jars. Still, they were obviously pickles, and the prospect of a whole jar of homemade pickles all to myself was thrilling to me. “Let’s open a jar,” I proposed, and Carolyn eagerly agreed.
The lids of the jars were rusty with age. Carolyn held a jar and I turned the lid, but even with our combined seven-year-old strength we couldn’t budge it. We tried with a towel, and we tried with a rubber jar-opener that Carolyn found in a drawer. I had read in a book that if you whack the edge of the jar lid with the handle of a knife, you can get a jar open. We tried that and only managed to dent the lids and the knife handle, too, which would get us in big trouble later on when her mom found out. We carried the jars outside and banged the lids against the edge of the old brick wall that separated the driveway from the yard. We knocked the jars upside-down on the driveway itself (“Don’t break it,” Carolyn warned. “I’m not,” I replied). We took the jars back into the kitchen and pried at the lids with the knife, at the bottom edge along the neck of the jar and also along the top of the lid where it looked like there was a seam. Finally we got one of the lid to slowly turn with a grinding noise. It looked like the rim of the lid was turning, but the top of the lid wasn’t, which was curious. But something was moving, which gave us confidence in our jar-opening skills, so we kept working at it, and eventually the lid came off.
Or, half of it did. The lid was in two pieces: a flat disk on top of the jar itself, and a band around the edge that screwed onto the jar and held the disk in place. This explained the seam on the top of the jar — the seam was where the two parts of the jar came together. It took still more prying with the knife to break the seal on the flat part of the lid, but finally it came loose with a pop. Out from the jar emerged a faint ghost of dill and vinegar.
Inside the mouth of the jar the olive green heads of the pickles peeked out of the brine and there was a big head of dill stuffed into the top. Carolyn got me a fork and a plate and I speared a pickle. It was softer than I expected, so soft it took some work to unbind the pickle from the jar without breaking it in pieces. I put the pickle on the plate and cut it open with the knife. Other than the funny color it looked like a pickle, with a bumpy cucumber skin on the outside and seeds on the inside. There was nothing moldy or gross about it or anything.
“Do you think its bad?” Carolyn asked.
“It doesn’t smell bad,” I said. “How old do you think it is?”
“I don’t know,” Carolyn said. “Really really old.”
I put my finger into the pickle juice on the plate, and then put it into my mouth. It tasted like vinegar, and maybe a little metallic. I cut off the end of the pickle and put it into my mouth. Carolyn watched me like she expected me to fall over dead any second. “What’s it like?” she asked me.
“It’s really good,” I said, and I cut myself another piece.
It was a dill pickle, but not sharp and sour like the glow-in-the-dark pickles I was used to, and not plain and salty like the deli half-sours. It was both sour and salty and tasted of dill and garlic and spices and something else, something deeper and delicious, something I had never tasted before. There was also that slight taste of metal, like an old can, but if I tried I could put that taste aside. I reached for more.
Emboldened by my tasting, Carolyn had some of the pickle, and agreed with me that it tasted really good. Both of us had more of the pickle on the plate. Then we had another one. Before we knew it, we had eaten the entire jar.
Carolyn’s mother was completely aghast that we had eaten the jar of pickles at all, let alone the whole thing. In amongst the scolding she said something about “grandmother’s pickles,” although I never found out if it was Carolyn’s grandmother or Carolyn’s mother’s grandmother. She was even angrier when she saw the state of the knives. She called my mother, and then between the two of them we both got a very stern lecture on Absolutely Positively NOT eating strange food we found in back closets. Although today I think we would have had a fast trip to the emergency room for a date with Mr Stomach Pump, at the time I think we were just watched overnight to see if we got sick. Neither of us did. Carolyn’s grandmother, or great-grandmother, knew how to can, and even though the pickles were old they were fine. Although the second jar of pickles, the one we couldn’t open, never did reappear after that. I never got a second taste of those pickles after the one afternoon. Carolyn’s mother probably spirited that jar off to the trash before we found a way to get it open.
* * *
Some people spend their whole lives trying to recreate some fundamental memorable experience in their past. They are always searching, reaching, grasping, tasting, but no peach tastes like that one perfect juicy summer vacation peach. No kiss is ever like that first one with the girl who broke your heart. No roller coaster is ever as exhilarating as the one on the beach that was torn down in 1956.
For me one of those core experiences is that jar of pickles. Thirty-five years later I can still taste those pickles. Thirty-five years later I am still trying to understand what it was about those pickles that made them so good. I’ve learned how to make and can pickles, and I’ve learned about vinegar pickles, and, and fermented salt pickles, and kosher pickles. I’ve made batches and batches of my own pickles, and I know how to use canning jars with the two-piece lids to keep pickles almost indefinitely. Thirty years later I am still searching for hundred-year-old pickle recipes, still gathering recipes from grandmothers and great-grandmothers all over the internet, still collecting heirloom cucumber seeds, and locating lost spices and ingredients with strange names that barely sound edible.
I’m still searching. I don’t know if I will ever find the pickle of my childhood, or if the memory of the perfect pickle is too idealized in my head. But I do believe that someday I will find a pickle that will be good enough that when I step up to the deli counter for an old fashioned sour dill, that pickle-eating adventure won’t be nearly as good as the pickle-finding adventure I’ve already had.