Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An Analogy of Pickles

Ingredients for greatness: cook and cucumbers!

At the end of this past August, since the produce from my parents’ garden was flooding their house and leaking out the refrigerator, I offered to make pickles.  My mother had amassed pounds and pounds of nice little cucumbers, and so she happily surrendered three of those pounds to me. 

Last Christmas, one of my gifts was a lovely cookbook called The Lost Art of Real Cooking.  I had stumbled across the title long before in a home magazine, and I was intrigued.  I don’t currently have time to follow the popular, laudable and healthy trend of reinventing popular foods at home, with real ingredients (which somehow never include things like ‘partially hydrogenated soybean oil’ or the infamous ‘high fructose corn syrup’).  I would, however, follow it if I did have time.  So I was very happy to receive the do-it-yourself, old-fashioned cookbook, with recipes for exciting things like sour dough and miso and beer and cheddar cheese. 

The very first recipe in the book is for pickles – more specifically for long-brine crock pickles.

I tend to shy away from things which involve canning.  It’s not hard to do, but it is kind of a pain.  For jam and such I think it’s great, but when the recipe for pickles confidently told me that the results required no canning and still would keep for months, I stood up and said, ‘These are the pickles for me!’ 

What’s the process?  Basically you sterilize a large pottery crock (no metal – it does strange things to the brine, apparently) and pile in as many cucumbers as you want, together with herbs and spices and garlic – anything you please.  Then you make a solution of 1 part salt to 8 parts water to ½ part vinegar, boil it, cool it, and pour it over the pickles.  Put something heavy on top to make sure the pickles don’t emerge from the brine.  Then you put the whole thing, loosely covered, in an out-of-the-way, not too hot, not too cold spot. 

The creation of greatness happens in secret!
Then you wait.  For three and half weeks, in fact.  And in the meantime, you anxiously check the crock every day, because the recipe told you that a scum would develop on the surface (in general, modern kitchens do not embrace scum, so I couldn’t help but be a bit distressed.  However, I knew from brewing beer with friends that old-fashioned cooking often involves strange, unsavory stages, but it’s all worth it in the end).

The recipe was right, except it’s not a scum so much as a thin film.  The cucumbers have a bacteria living on their skins – the same bacteria as in yoghurt, in fact – and it reacts with the salt and starts converting the sugars in the cucumbers into sour goodness.  The surface of the brine betrays this through a transparent film which is easy to skim off.

But the process requires quite a lot of patience....Also, a lot of trust that the film you’re removing from the crock isn’t some horrible thing that will kill you.  After about two weeks, you want to toss caution to the winds and break into the pickles, both because they smell so good, and because you can’t quite believe that they are really okay.  However, I restrained myself successfully for the whole period.  The result: brightly sour, crisp, delicious pickles (which in spite of the bacteria do not kill you, as I can attest, after eating two).

I couldn’t help but think, as I undertook this new endeavor, that in fact pickling compares quite nicely to art, and especially to my writing.  In my opinion, the chief ingredient of art is patience.  Someone might argue with me here and say, ‘No! Inspiration! Vision! Talent! Skill! Practice!’  And I would agree that all those are essential ingredients.  Then I would point out that often we have to wait for inspiration, or we have to take time to understand our vision, or our talent doesn’t emerge immediately, or we spend twenty years perfecting our skills by endlessly repeated practice. 

Being able to manage all of these possible and even likely roadblocks on the way to artistry takes patience.  It’s the impatient people who start stories and then leave them unfinished, or talk about  writing a novel someday, but never do it right now. 

So much of good art, and good writing, and good living, depends on waiting.  Just as I put my pickles in the crock and cross my fingers and wait for a secret, unseen fermentation, I tuck a new story idea into the back of my mind and hope it’s strong enough to survive amid all the other ideas rioting in there.  Then I check on it at intervals to see if it still shows promise.  Moreover, once I do actually write it down, I put it away, wait for it to settle, and return only much later, hoping that its good qualities are worth salvaging from the mess of the first draft.

All this is patience: waiting for story-pickles to do their thing; holding myself back judiciously, even if I'm tempted to interfere and try to force something to happen.  But it turns out that if you do have the calm and mental discipline to trust in the pickles, then they become something marvelous.  I think that writers and artists can find their patience rewarded in the same way.  Trust your story, and it will grow slowly into its best form. 

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this read. I'll have to let my thoughts pickle a bit. Always did like gherkins more though...I've a sweet tooth. :)