It’s not really cost-effective, this pickling and preserving business, I realize, as I empty another $20 bottle of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar into a pot. My husband keeps checking in, nervously asking “Are you having fun?” because these evenings are cutting into my Netflix/book-reading time, and I tend to be an angry-and resentful-if-you-aren’t-also-contributing house-cleaner.
But there is the small stack of rainbow-hued jars starting to accumulate after a week of busy evenings, glowing from within. There is the sound of the “pop” that makes my heart lift a little when the seal is made. (It worked! Not incubating botulism yet!) There is a sense of deep alignment with the seasons and the fleeting urgency of this specific moment (cucumbers! carrots! beans! Pickle them now, or forfeit the opportunity entirely for another year.)
There is a small sense that I am resourcing myself for an uncertain future, by slow-growing these skills that all my ancestors knew but that somehow skipped a generation; that I’m building a little bit of resilience to depend slightly less on a volatile global supply chain. And there is the sense that I’m packing some of the sweetness of this moment, of this abundant sunshiney moment, into a glass container, as an offering to my Future Self. I imagine her, in the fall and winter, her step a little heavier getting out of bed in the dark, looking to a low-hung grey sky, missing the feeling of hair against bare shoulders and bare feet against lush clover-filled grass… and sending this gesture to her as a reminder: sweetness returns, love. Time might feel as if it’s lurching relentlessly forward, but it’s rolling over and over, cycling, spiralling, a wheel.
Every year, for a while now, I’ve tried to make something to preserve or pickle in the summer – starting with strawberry jam in 2012 from bare bones instructions scribbled on the back of a cereal box by Tonette McEwan. I haven’t yet absorbed this process into muscle memory, and every summer, I enter the kitchen with a sense of dauntedness. How many ways can I mess this up? How does it work again?
I didn’t learn these things at the apron strings of a beloved elder or a practical mother. I learned them out of books, so the knowledge always feels a bit slippery, like it dumped out of my head last year the minute the pot was scrubbed (just like all the information crammed into my brain to pass an exam promptly vanished the minute we headed to the pub to celebrate the final test). I learned them at the bookshelf, and these new bibles (The New Homemade Kitchen by Joseph Shuldiner and It Starts with Fruit by Jordan Champagne) are utterly lust-worthy and wonderful (and way better to have as a guide than a Google search.)
And yet, each year, I have a growing sense of the rhythm of this work, the laying out of supplies, jars, tongs, the MacGyvering of a canning rack, the towels delineating where the ready jars and the full jars and the processed jars will await their turns. Each year, I find there’s a little something more I can grab from my garden, instead of at the store, to add to the mix – my own dill, my own coriander seeds.
There are failures – like the unredeemable refrigerator pickles that I made with the leftover brine from the dill pickles and that tasted like an ocean vegetable – a nice crunch and a mouthful of salt – to be deposited directly into the compost bin with a sigh. And there’s the worry that there are other, yet-to-be-discovered-screw-ups, that will be revealed when I eagerly open one of those jars of beets or beans or cukes or relish…
But if I wanted guarantees, I’d go buy something industrially packed and commercially grown, from the store.
I am realizing, deep in these days of uncertainty and strangeness, that I don’t trust those guarantees anymore.
I want the intimacy of relationship, with my garden, my farmers, my neighbour’s generosity, my own hands conjuring a future snack or meal, with my family and friends when I lay out a small platter of cheeses and crackers and home-made relish, with the friends who shared recipes and whose names blazon the top of my barely-legible recipe cards.
Perversely, I’ve absorbed the idea that the latter is a much riskier prospect to depend upon. Probably because emotional vulnerability – failure, rejection, disappointment – always feels so live and lurking. But that terrain is the most rewarding. The faceless amorphous industrial food complex has seduced us with the idea of being reliable, invulnerable, of providing us whatever we want whenever we want it… but it’s fracturing right now as every faultline that has ever existed gapes under COVID19 pressure loads.
I’m not pickling and preserving to save money, or to plant a flag for hope, or to stockpile my apocalypse arsenal. I’m doing what Kate Raworth, the renegade economist and founder of Doughnut Economics (which preaches the radical idea of building economic models that operate within the Earth’s carrying capacity and try to meet everyone’s needs), says: I’m activating in the space in which I have influence. In this small way, in the small space of my kitchen, I shape a small aspect of my future. Buying local, saving seeds, sharing abundance, observing the seasons, trading recipes with friends, falling into step with Nature… in these small ways, we all can.