I worked in a cabinet shop for a short time when I was in college and the only other employee was Russ Crispin, a tall, wiry bachelor in his 60’s who would bark and yelp for no apparent reason in between cutting sheets of melamine. Often, when he was in a particularly good mood, he would break into song with his powerful deep voice. He was quite amusing. The thing I remember most about him though was that he made and often shared with me, the best homemade pickles I’d ever tasted. We often joked about him starting his own brand. I think in part due to that memory, I decided to make my first batch of dill pickles last week and well, although they may not stand up to a “Crispin” pickle they turned out pretty good! Admittedly, it was the first, fast and dirty recipe Google churned up but the fact is I’ve now made pickles and they were just as if not more satisfactory than what I could have purchased at the supermarket. Now, I understand this may not seem like a big deal to most but the way I see it, it’s changing my life.
I grew up in a middle class suburban neighborhood and although I was fortunate to have parents who cooked, the most exposure I had to the actual processing of food was when we made English Toffee at Christmastime. I honestly only ever helped lick the spoon but I remember it was a mysterious procedure involving a huge pot, a thermometer and stirring this molten liquid for what seemed like an eternity. We also didn’t have much of a yard so a lemon tree and maybe a tomato plant or two provided the only food items I actually saw plucked from their source. Most everything I ate was either bagged, boxed, canned, waxed, wrapped in cellophane or otherwise pre-packaged before it touched my lips. Of course I had a pretty good hunch my eggs came from a chicken and my apple from a tree somewhere but I really had no idea how most of what I was eating got there and back then I didn’t really care.
It was really only a few years ago that food started to matter to me and I swear it was like a veil was lifted. I’m not going to spend any time here proclaiming the evils of industrial food, although it is a frighteningly efficient system, but it was like I left the matrix for the first time and I began to comprehend what food actually was…and wasn’t. I also began to realize that one of the best ways to understand what I was eating was to find out how it was made or grown and even better to try and do it myself.
This has now led to everything from my first vegetable garden, brewing beer, slaughtering and eating a wild cow, and now homemade pickles. I also currently have plans for making mustard and sourdough bread among other things. I’ll most likely never be a master at any of these, but the process of making them is what matters to me. I am learning first hand what it takes to create those ingredients I reach for on a daily basis and it’s reshaping the way I relate to food.
I was trained to see slick packaging and symmetrically shaped produce as indicators of quality food. I was conditioned to think that for a healthy diet my focus should be on consuming the right amount of calories or protein or whatever unit we use to somehow quantify the value of food. Now that I’m producing some of the food, like homemade pickles, that I used to take for granted, the seductive packaging and clever marketing don’t have as much influence. I find myself less and less concerned now with how my food is actually presented and instead caring about where and how it was produced and of course how good it tastes. I finally realized that I only really need to be asking myself one question, “is what I’m eating…real food?”
Although I didn’t grow my own cucumbers and used a 2-day vinegar recipe instead of a slow fermenting salt brine (I’m getting there), I can say with some confidence that my pickles are real, because I saw every ingredient that went into that jar. Although I feel like a late bloomer, I am finally becoming more connected to the food I’m eating and it’s a good feeling. Never again will I underestimate the power of a good homemade pickles.