There comes a point in every young man’s life where he must make a decision. For Harry Potter these decisions are frequently epic: how might I pursue the man who killed my parents? How can I learn the secrets of my past? Potter’s decisions, however, pale next to the heart-wretching decision I had to make myself this afternoon: should I use the jars I just purchased from The Container Store to make nectarine jam or garden pickles?
Ever since Mes Confitures arrived in my mailbox, I’ve been plotting my first foray into jam-making. Clotilde’s been coaching me via e-mail, preparing me both intellectually and emotionally for the task at hand. I even have the recipe picked out: nectarine-apricot-ginger. Whole Foods has the freshest looking nectarines you’ve ever seen.
And yet an owl swooped through my window this afternoon with a note. “Make Pickles,” it said.
It just so happened that I had Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich book on my desk and that I recalled a recipe for garden pickles in the last section. These were the sort of pickles I’d always seen on people’s countertops or in gourmet groceries and never really thought to try: the kind with carrots and celery and cauliflower instead of cucumbers. The kind I always thought looked gross.
The recipe itself would require the purchase of a slew of ingredients I would probably never use again. Fennel seeds. Mustard seeds. Eye of newt. [Kidding. About the fennel.]
The jam recipe required only three ingredients: nectarines, apricots and ginger.
Yet the owl hooted. John Williams’ music played. Lolita morphed into Maggie Smith. I knew I had to make pickles.
* * * * * * *
Pickles are, in a way, part of my family’s heritage.
You see, I am the proud product of three highly unique maternal grandfathers that peppered–either genetically or emotionally–my childhood. Let me explain. My grandmother (mom’s mom) has been married thrice, widowed twice. Grandpa #1, Arthur, is my mom’s father and therefore my genetic grandpa. He died before I was born and I was named after him. The evidence suggests that I get my writing skills and my humor from him.
Grandpa #3, Roy, is alive and well and living with grandma currently in Delray Beach, FL. You can see him in my video “What Retired Folks Eat.” His charm and light-hearted touch add a warm glow to all family gatherings. I love to see him whenever I go home.
But it’s Grandpa #2 that concerns us now. Grandpa Joe, my childhood grandfather (for he was “grandpa” when I was born and stayed grandpa until he passed when I was 11) owned a pickle factory on Long Island: Stern’s Pickles. This article appeared in The New York Times in 1997 and was written by a member of the Stern/Steur family. It’s a great (and not terribly long) biography of the factory’s history and its place in the community:
“It was a red, barn-like structure with shelves stocked with several varieties of pickles and sauerkraut at first, but later with additional pickled products as hot peppers, tomatoes, onions and cauliflower and other specialty items as olives, mustard, Maraschino cherries, ketchup and jams. “Pickle Products for Particular People” was their slogan, and as their reputation grew, people traveled from all over the metropolitan area for a shopping expedition to this wondrous place.”
I actually remember going there several times with my grandmother in my chidlhood. The memories are hazy, but I know for sure their context: while my grandfather manned the factory, my grandmother sold superflous pickles at the Roosevelt Field Flea Market. This was my grandma at her most industrious: she sold pickles like no one else. She recalls these memories fondly and someday we’ll do an interview about it for the site.
Suffice it to say that pickles are part of my family’s heritage. And also suffice it to say that my family would collectively moan in dismay if they learned that I spent $26 to make pickles that don’t even look anything like pickles. But first the jars.
* * * * * * * *
You would think jars would be easy to find here in Atlanta. Since I was in the neighborhood the other day I went to the Cook’s Warehouse in midtown. They apologized. No jars.
“Any idea where I might get some?” I asked.
“Kroger,” they answered.
So I went to Kroger.
“Jars?” I asked.
“Sorry,” they said, “Don’t carry them anymore.”
Neither did several other places. And then it occurred to me:
The Container Store is one of those stores that’s great when you’re in it, but when you’re not in it you never think to go there. I never think to go to the Container Store. But it dawned on me today that they sell jars. See:
So I bought three: two for jam and one for pickles. When I payed, the cashier actually shared family history of her own.
“Making jam?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Ahh, my grandmother used to make jam,” she said sweetly, “She made everything.”
“That’s sweet,” I said. “Did she make pickles too?”
The woman looked thoughtful for a second. “No,” she said, “I don’t think so.”
“Booyah,” I said, and got on my way.
* * * * * * * *
Ok this piece is a little too epic in scope. It’s 3:16 am! Let’s get on with the pickles…
Here’s my $26 worth of ingredients:
And here are the vegetables all ready to be pickled:
First step? Cut up the cauliflower. I got to work:
You know what’s interesting about this cauliflower? It’s not cauliflower. It’s iceberg lettuce. It was placed in the cauliflower section of the display. I assumed I would peel back the outer layer and see white brainy matter. I peeled back the outer layer. I peeled again. I kept peeling. No white brainy matter.
So much for the cauliflower.
It’s ok, I still had carrots, fennel, celery and a yellow pepper which I chopped up promptly:
Next I toasted the fennel seeds and bay leaves (I skimped on mustard seeds and peppercorns):
This went well until a bay leaf started burning. I promptly dumped it into a pot with water, champagne vinegar, sliced garlic, salt and Thyme:
I let this boil and then reduced it to a simmer. And do you know what it smelled like?
I’m being serious. If you could scratch and sniff the Harry Potter movie (which I saw later on and really enjoyed) I think those cavernous magic shops would smell like vinegar, garlic, and Thyme–especially Thyme. This is what little old ladies smell like too. That is, when you scratch them.
Now, after 15 minutes of simmering add your vegetables:
Let this cool and then add it to the jar:
How pretty is this? Let’s get a closer look:
Of course, I can’t taste it until tomorrow (these are 24 hour pickles) but I can hardly wait. And in the meantime I can always make jam. And now this wizard is off to bed.