Not long ago, I finished Cooked, Michael Pollan’s latest, in which he seeks to elucidate the magic of our kitchens. He looks at the transformative power of each of the four elements when applied to ingredients, and works to understand the connections we draw from and through what we eat as it ceases to be raw materials and becomes food. I couldn’t put it down. I tore through it like a fluffy bedtime novel, as my friend S. probably knew I would when she sent me a copy.
In a number of ways, Pollan’s investigation reminded me of my own scholarly work a few years ago when I was a graduate student. Though I was focused on medieval literature, I was intensely interested in what we could learn about human – and not-so-human – beings by examining the literary depictions of how and what they ate. Dietary habits, I thought, along with sexual practices, might be what determines humanness within this field of literature. Too much, too little, or too weird, and your food habits moved you outside what we think of as human, and into something else.
Unsurprisingly, as anyone who has researched food and its cultural impacts deeply knows, this led me to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and The Raw and the Cooked, the first volume of his elaborate, complex exploration of human myth and culture. Without getting too academic, I’ll just say that Levi-Strauss thinks a great deal of the development of culture happens as – and as a result of – foodstuffs transforming from raw to cooked. His analogy equates the wild to the raw, and the civilized to the cooked.
Pollan pulls on and plays with this idea, considering that if indeed cooked food represents culture or civilization, then there must be something about the cooking process itself that is civilizing and bridging. The four elements he examines are aligned with four types of cooking methods: fire explores the tradition of barbecue; water looks at stews and braising; air relates his adventures in the magic/science of bread baking; and earth digs into fermentation, the weird, marginally repulsive transformation of fresh food into pickles, or beer, or cheese – food that is prized and yet impacted by earth and death and rot.
This, too, reminded me of my own work (and don’t worry, we’re getting to the recipe part here soon), particularly an article I ran across as I was working on the Chaucer chapter of my dissertation. Subtitled “The Raw, the Cooked, and the Rotten,” the article took on Levi-Strauss’s nature/culture formulation and added a step to accommodate one of the characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. If raw food is wild and cooked food is civilized, what happens when that cooked food goes bad? This seemed to equate to my idea of people who had exceeded the limits of humanness through their eating habits, turning food into waste.
But I was looking at food habits from a perspective of too little as well as too much. What about superhuman beings who survived without eating, or whose bodies remained impenetrable, and un-penetrated, by the eventual corruption of food? I hypothesized making this triangle a square: adding preservation as a fourth corner. Suspended in limbo by sealing oneself against the external corruption consumption and digestion can bring, you remain preserved. This is not humanly possible, but it is not considered with disgust in medieval literature. Rather, such individuals hang closer to the divine than to the monstrous or subhuman.
Though this is not quite the four-some Pollan presents, I think fermentation and preservation have some similarities. In being preserved by their “cooking” process, fermented foods and preserved foods are mysterious blends of human and natural magic. Jams and jellies, preserved by being cooked with sugar, are the sweet side of this equation. Pollan opts to explore sauerkraut and cheese and beer. Today, I’m taking on pickles: simple raw, sliced vegetables transformed, “cooked,” and held in briny limbo by vinegar, sometimes sugar, and salt.
When N. and I got serious, we started using pickles as a metaphor for our relationship. In most refrigerators, there is a jar of pickles shoved way in the back, often on the top shelf, getting in the way of the orange juice and the milk and the mayonnaise. When you finally pull that jar out and peer inside, it’s almost never full. There are one or two pickles in there, floating around in the dill-and-peppercorn-laced brine, warty and sour and beautiful. The ubiquity of that pickle jar became our metaphor. As long as there were pickles in our fridge, we would be okay.
As with most Americans, I would wager, the pickles I was accustomed to when I was younger were always cucumber based, and usually dill (though I am a fiend for bread and butter pickles). I had no real sense that other sorts of vegetables could be pickled (aside from beets, thanks to my Nana) until I started frequenting the McMenamins pubs, an Oregon and Southern Washington chain of sorts featuring decent beer, good burgers, and remarkably slow service. Our little graduate crew went often – there were three different locations in the city of Eugene alone. Their hummus platter, ever present on the appetizer menu, came with a variety of vegetables along with triangles of pita, and often the spears of green bean and carrot, and the occasional nub of cauliflower, were pickled. Of course I had little thought of doing this myself until, chasing after an elusive potato salad that included pickled green beans, I started noticing how expensive these various vegetable pickles were in the grocery store. Recreating that potato salad required pickled green beans, dammit, and as a poor graduate student I was both unable and morally opposed to spending $7.99 on a slender little jar.
Fortunately, vegetable pickles are easy and fall within even a humanities graduate student’s budget. Vinegar, sugar, and a healthy shower of salt, heated to a simmer to dissolve the crystals. Jam as many vegetables as you can into a jar, shove in some flavoring agents: bay leaf, mustard seeds, dill, fennel, and pour on the vinegar. Cap, relocate to the fridge, and remember them a few days later when they’ve had a chance to sour up.
Vegetable pickles seem entirely suitable for the season. Fresh, young vegetables are great for pickling, especially while they are still small in size, so the vinegar can penetrate faster. Slender carrots, or plump radishes, or the tiny lanterns of young peppers, are a sign of spring that is often gone too fast. Pickles, though, hold that spring forever, jarred and capped and safe on the top shelf lurking behind the orange juice. Though they are not unaltered – the raw crispness is indeed transformed – in that way too they are like a spring gone by, or perhaps the memories of that spring that remain. It’s not that perfect, warm day anymore, but you remember its brightness – you need only uncap the jar and fish out a crisp briny souvenir.
I’ve done three types of pickle here: onion, carrot, and radish. Each is seasoned with a different combination of spices, and because I like to be fancy, I’ve used a different variety of vinegar. The radishes, I must admit, are my favorite. To play on their peppery flavor, I’ve added mustard seeds and a dried chili, but teased them as well with a heaping helping of sugar for the sweet-hot kick.
While these are lovely in salads, as part of a cheese or hummus plate, or just bright and sour on a fork, they are dynamite on a sandwich. And as the above photo suggests, it is on a sandwich that they found their sprightly home for us. Specifically, on a banh mi sandwich, that fresh, crisp Vietnamese invention. Even more specifically, on the idea that spawned my whole 2015 project: a banh mi-tball. There are essentially three components to this sandwich. These pickles are the first. Next week we’ll look at the bread (the true banh mi), and in the third and final installment, pork meatballs awash in aromatics, simmered in a miso-spiked broth I wanted to drink all on its own.
But for the moment, let’s just revel in the transformative magic of pickles. You’ll need the week for them to get good and sour before you can properly enjoy the sandwich anyway.
Refrigerator Vegetable Pickles
My jars held 6 ounces (¾ cup), so these measurements are keyed to that.
carrot ribbons from 1 carrot to fill jar (use a vegetable peeler to create long strips)
⅔ cup white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
thinly sliced radishes to fill jar
1 small dried chili pepper
scant ⅔ cup rice wine vinegar (unseasoned)
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons sugar (¼ cup)
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
thinly sliced red onion to fill jar
1 bay leaf
⅔ cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon fennel seed
- For each: fill a heat-safe, lidded jar with vegetable slices (add chili or bay leaf, in the radish or onion case, respectively).
- In a small pot, combine vinegar, salt, sugar, and other spices. Heat over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until liquid reaches a rolling boil and salt and sugar have completely dissolved.
- Carefully, pour vinegar mixture over vegetables in jar until full. Gently push vegetables into liquid if needed – they will want to float.
- Close jars tightly and refrigerate until vegetables are pickled to your liking – at least 2-3 days.