In truth I despise eating pickles, because they remind me of the deaths of many friends. But I do not want to be rude. —Sell Out by Simon Rich
The movie “An American Pickle” tells the story of a turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant to New York who falls into a vat at the pickle factory where he works, only to wake up 100 years later in hipster New York, where, to his constant astonishment, the men all have beards like his, no one speaks Yiddish, but everyone loves his homemade pickles.
“Artisanal,” they call them.
The movie is based on a series of four New Yorker short stories by Simon Rich called “Sell Out.” One theme coursing through the stories is that everything old is new again. Nothing really dies. Beards, old Jewish men’s names, selling out — it’s all just recycled, often in increasingly disappointing and comic ways.
And if Rich was searching for a metaphor for death and regeneration, he couldn’t have done better than the pickle.
Real kosher dills are created through a process called lacto-fermentation. Nothing but cucumbers, water, salt, dill and spices go into the barrel. Microorganisms in the air and on the skin of the cukes penetrate the cell membranes and transform the sugars inside. Just as fermented grapes become wine and cabbage become sauerkraut, cucumbers become half- or full-sours. The process of decay creates new life.
“As one of the primary processes by which nature breaks down living things so that their energies and atoms might be reused by other living things, fermentation puts us in touch with the ever-present tug, in life, of death,” Michael Pollan writes in “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”
The probiotics that do the heavy lifting, we all now know, are fundamental not just to flavor, but to health. Eat more real pickles (and yogurt, and wine, and sourdough) and you too could very well wake up in 100 years.
“There are three important keys to pickling: patience, hard work, and rage,” Herschel says in Rich’s story. “Rage, of these three, is by far the most vital. Pickling can be torture, like living inside endless nightmare. The only way to have success is to approach each day with violence.”
This, I have found after years of pickling, is untrue. Pickling is easy. Just keep your jars, hands and utensils clean, follow the instructions, and in a few days, you’ll have pickles. I’ve taught pickling to classrooms of college students at USC and to families in a low-income neighborhoods near USC, and at the end the look on their faces always reads the same: Wait, that’s all? You mean, I just made pickles?
Beyond being simple, pickling is the opposite of a nightmare. It calms me. No: it amazes me. It puts me in touch with some of the most profound truths of life: every death is a rebirth and change can be wonderful (and anyway, it’s inevitable).
I once had the honor of interviewing the guru of fermentation, Sandor Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation,” on stage at Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan in 2016. He put it perfectly: “The transience of life must be together with the transience of death. Isn’t that the lesson of these bacteria?”
Herschel, of course, doesn’t see it that way. For him it’s just a miserable way to make a living.
“Whole Foods sells pickle jar for seven,” he says. “I sell for four and include all the scum… ‘Pickles here!’ I scream. ‘Pickles with garlic and scum!’”
Fortunately for Herschel, his pickles take off, rebranded as Sarah’s Statue of Liberty Garlic Pickles, scum and all (literal spoiler alert). The hipsters even transform them into hipster dishes.
As he recounts: “That night Simon’s goy comes with giant bag of vegetables. ‘I heard you’re into pickling,’ she says. ‘So I went on Epicurious and planned a pickle-themed menu. We’re having broiled trout with pickle butter—and a pickle-vinaigrette salad on the side.’”
Rich doesn’t give the recipes for these dishes, which of course he offers up mockingly. But, hey, they sound good to me. So in honor of “An American Pickle,” I’ve devised the recipes muself, including my own for garlicky pickles.
Because if Herschel’s story teaches us anything, generations come and go, but pickles are forever.
Sarah’s Statue of Liberty Garlic Pickles
4 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 gallon distilled, spring or purified water
3 pounds (about) pickling cucumbers, washed
5 cloves garlic, sliced
2 heads or bunches dill
1 hot red chile pepper, fresh or dried
1 teaspoon whole mustard seed
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
Grape or fig leaves (optional)
Add salt to a large clean pickling jar or crock. Add the water and stir to dissolve the salt. Cut the tips off each end of the cucumbers. Place the cukes in the jar, layering in spices. Top with grape or fig leaf if available. Weight down with clean stones or other very clean weights. Make sure the water covers everything by an inch. If not, add more water.
Tighten the lid. Loosen it daily to release excess gas, then reseal. After three days check for doneness. Skim scum and discard. Refrigerate when the pickles reach the right taste for you.
Broiled Trout with Pickle Butter
4 whole trout, cleaned and butterflied, or trout filets*
8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup finely diced dill pickles
2 tablespoons fresh minced dill or parsley
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat your broiler. You may also use a grill or a heavy skillet.
In a small bowl, blend the butter with the diced pickles and mustard and season with salt and pepper.
Rub the trout with oil and season with salt and pepper. Broil under high heat, skin side up, until the skin is crisp, about three minutes. Turn the fish and broil until just opaque, about three minutes longer.
Transfer the trout to plates. Top with the dill pickle butter, sprinkle with fresh dill or parsley and serve with lemon wedges.
*You can also use wild salmon, halibut, cod, or any fresh fish. Pickles go with almost everything.
Cabbage Salad with Pickle Vinaigrette
My son Adi Eshman came up with this recipe to accompany cornmeal-fried fish. It just happens to use pickles and their juice. And it just happens to be better than regular coleslaw. The amounts below are suggestions. Taste and adjust.
1 head cabbage, red and/or white, cored and sliced thin
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1 small sweet pepper, diced
1 dill pickle, chopped
2- 3 dashes hot sauce
3 T. mayonnaise
1 T. dill pickle juice
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 t. fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly-ground pepper
Add vegetables to a deep bowl, then add dressing ingredients. Taste and adjust amounts. Keep it chilled until ready to serve.