One day last summer, I ran into my friend Caroline at the grocery store. My cart was filled with two cases of large canning jars. Caroline asked, “What’s up with all those jars?”
“Pickling!” I said as I reached into my bag for my iPad. “I have photos!” No pet poses or kiddie pics for me. I have pickling porn — luscious close-ups of jars of dill pickles, beets, carrots, peaches and tomatoes.
“Wow, it takes so much time. Why don’t you buy one of those big jars of pickles at Costco?” said Caroline. “Who wants to be in the kitchen all day?”
I explained to her about the tradition of putting food away for the winter and how good it felt to have a full pantry. She looked skeptical as we bid each other goodbye.
Pickling is in my genes. There is something enchanting about pickling fruits and vegetables at their summer prime to enjoy in the winter.
I started to preserve 30 years ago when I decided to make jam to give away as Christmas gifts. I was a poor graduate student and my homemade jars filled with jewel-toned jams were a hit. I could only dream of pickling in my diminutive kitchen. My friend Ian, descended from a long line of prairie picklers, had a real kitchen. We entered into a pickling pact. We would split the costs of the ingredients, pool our labour and divide the jars between us.
We started with garlic dills. Things went smoothly and at the end of a long day we proudly placed our jars of pickles to ripen in the back of Ian’s bedroom closet. A few weeks later Ian woke up at 3 a.m. to a strong foul smell. Our pickles had fermented and the gas was causing the brine to seep out onto the floor. A call to Ian’s mother identified our mistake: we hadn’t processed them long enough. Chastened, we forged ahead, producing mustard pickles, chutney and canned tomatoes. Each summer we lugged bushels of pickling cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables by bus from the farmer’s market. My frequent business trips to Asia and Africa did not invalidate the pickle pact. One year, just back from Bangladesh, and scheduled to leave for Zambia within the week, I spent the whole weekend canning tomatoes.
Then I moved to Africa. I gave away my jars and distributed pickles to friends. Pickling didn’t jibe with life in the tropics, where there is no winter to preserve for. Three years in Africa were followed by seven years in Asia. For a decade, my pickling and preserving genes lay dormant.
After 10 years abroad I returned to Montreal and a kitchen too small for canning. Ian had moved to San Francisco. I was busy. Then one day I ended up at the farmer’s market. Soon six jars of blackberry jam were sitting on my kitchen counter. Blueberry jam, dill carrots and peaches followed. The next year I tried chili sauce. By then I had a boyfriend with a big kitchen. Size does matter! One day he came with me to the market. Love works in mysterious ways and before he knew what was happening, we had made 12 jars of pickled beets.
I married the pickled beet-making boyfriend. Our pantry is full of jars of peaches, beets, tomatoes, watermelon rind pickle, blueberry syrup and dill pickles. Canning is lots of work. But, on a cold snowy February day, when I go down to my pantry, take a jar of tomatoes off the shelf, bring it upstairs and open it, the aroma of tomato and basil fills the kitchen. The calendar says February but in my kitchen it’s summer again. I know that soon the summer pickling cycle will start again.
My pickling gene lies dormant no more.
Mariam S. Pal lives in N.D.G.