The Perfect Pickle (1981)

I’m going to start writing about interesting things I did before I had a blog to report it on. Call it reminiscence; it won’t amount to a “memoir.” Perhaps I’m inspired, in part, by the memoir-writing my mother did near the end of her life. Perhaps my grandchildren will find these tales amusing, one day.

1981 – The Perfect Pickle

When our daughter was 6 months old, Nan and I decided it was time to take her to visit grandparents. So we planned a road trip, from our home in the San Francisco area, to include Washington DC, where I grew up, and Wausau, Wisconsin, where Nan’s family lived.

In Sonoma Country, we had been thriving on the ready access to wild and bucolic rural scenery, and the relaxed pace of small towns. We agreed to avoid most big cities, and take back roads instead of Interstate highways. After all, we could take all the time we wanted.

It wasn’t my first cross-country road trip, and I thought about long days crossing deserts. So when we talked about supplies to take in the car, including road snacks, I say, we need pickles. Pickles are the best way to restore electrolytes, when the desert air gets you dehydrated. And we could get, from our local health food store, the perfect organic pickles: Cosmic Cukes. (I do not exaggerate: see https://www.sfgate.com/food/tasterschoice/article/Cosmic-Cukes-remain-king-of-the-dills-2748962.php). I figured a couple of bottles should last through the dry country.

I don’t remember many of the details of our travels. I have one clear memory, of a day we spent hiking through the Utah desert, up a red-rock canyon to swim under a rare and wonderful waterfall. Maybe this was also the time I saw the abandoned Anasazi cliff city at Mesa Verde, Colorado. We didn’t have a camera (film was a somewhat expensive hobby), or anything other than pen and paper to keep a record of what we did. But I do remember that somewhere before the Continental Divide, we ran out of pickles.

At our small-town stopping points, I would search the shelves for a decent pickle. I knew they wouldn’t have Cosmic Cukes, which was just a little hippie label at the time, but anything reasonably natural would be okay. But there was nothing close; only various jars of chemical-laden brine with sad-looking rejects from the produce trade, colored a sickly yellow with turmeric. Repulsed, I would try at the next town, and the next, with the same result. Finally, I admitted defeat. We’d have to travel on without pickles. But, I swore, when we get to New York, I’m going to get the perfect pickle!

I’d been in New York City before, but never to shop for anything, certainly not for food; still, I knew that Hester Street, on the Lower East Side, was the center of Jewish immigrant culture,  which would have to be the source of the greatest pickle culture in the Western Hemisphere. Nan was willing to humor me, so we added this to our itinerary.

After that, I have no memory of what we did, what roads we traveled, where we slept, what wonders we saw; not even the Blue Ridge Mountains, which must have been nice. I’m sure we visited my family in Washington, but don’t remember what else we did there. All I remember is, each day, driving through the heat of the afternoon, I’d repeat my pledge: we’ll go to New York, and get a great pickle.

It wasn’t really an obsession; more like a way to stay in focus—a plot device, if you will. I would not remain vanquished by America’s poor taste in food; I would triumph in the end.

In due course, we arrived in New York. We found the Lower East Side, a place as busy and varied as any old-world urban center. We found Hester Street, and sure enough, there was pickle-seller’s shop, stocked with barrel upon barrel of fresh pickles.

I had never bought pickles straight from the barrel before, but I knew what I wanted. Most commercial pickles are fully fermented, i.e. sour. Kosher delicatessens also stock pickles that have been stopped halfway through the ferment, i.e. half-sour. Only once, in my East Coast childhood, I had tasted a pickle that was a compromise between these: the rare 3/4-sour pickle. And to me, that was perfection; very close to the Cosmic ideal.

So I confidently asked for 1 pickle, 3/4 sour, and the shopkeeper fished into the appropriate barrel and gave it to me. I took a bite: perfect!

Nan was flabbergasted. You mean, she asked, we came all this was, and made all this fuss, for ONE pickle?

It’s not about quantity, I answered, serenely. This pickle is not a commodity. It’s the fulfillment of a Quest.

Having settled that, we continued to Nantucket, Boston, Wisconsin, and back to California, and made it comfortably with no more pickles. Funny how that works out.

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