Early in Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children, the main character Saleem Sinai explains that as he feels himself getting older, his desire to tell his own story grows more and more urgent. Identifying himself as a man who has "dedicated [his] latter days to the large-scale preparation of condiments," he declares:
Rising from my pages comes the unmistakable whiff of chutney...
And my chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my
nocturnal scribblings--by day amongst the pickle-vats, by night
within these sheets, I spend my time at the great work of
preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the
corruption of the clocks.
Warming to his theme, Saleem lectures Padma, his long-suffering wife-to-be: "Things--even people--have a way of leaking into each other... like flavours when you cook... the past has dripped into me... so we can't ignore it..."
I always liked this metaphor. Rushdie uses it to suggest that we are all like pickles, each of us a separate piece of vegetal matter that can be distinguished from another piece. If we are born into the same family or country (or, in the case of the novel, if we are born during the same midnight hour of that country's day of independence), we might find ourselves pickled in a common brine. Over time our shared history, the liquid that surrounds and preserves us, may begin to give us all a similar flavor and color. Nevertheless, each of us is still our own completely distinct, separate chunk of cucumber, beetroot, or watermelon rind.
This also resonates with me because I have a refrigerator door literally crammed full of every kind of condiment and relish you can imagine.
If you're my age, you remember this:
Oh, pickles. They are so delightfully tart and visceral. I never liked the bread-and-butter kind - they're D's favorite, but he's got much more of a sweet tooth than I have. Rather, I've always been a fan of kosher dills, the kind that make me squinch up my face after a bite. When D and I were living in New York, I bought and tried my first "new pickle" out of a barrel on the street in Chelsea. Heavenly days. And then when we returned to Birmingham, we discovered to our joy that a new delicatessen, Max's, had opened out on Highway 280. In addition to all the lovely latkes, knishes, and noodle kugels, they offered a mixed pickle plate with old and new dill pickles.
They put that plate in front of me, and the new pickles were gone in a flash: like a housefire.
Bashō knew how fast that was - fast enough to take everything.
According to Robert Hass, one of his translators, in The Essential Haiku: "In 1683, in a fire that destroyed much of Edo, Bashō's house burned down. From this vantage point, it would appear that the world contrived to serve him with a lesson in nonattachment every decade or so." After that, Bashō's heart went out of staying home. Even though his students built him a new house, he wasn't really interested. Home was no longer safe. It wasn't home. Instead, Bashō took to the road and wandered to the wildest, most remote corners of Japan - a dangerous journey he describes in his work, The Narrow Road of the Interior, an excerpt from which I teach in world literature.
The work itself is a chronicle of his visits to various historical and spiritual sites, including both prose sections and short haiku written by him, his disciple and companion Sora, and other travelers they met. Interspersed among these descriptions of temples and relics are humble, gorgeous fragments of poem that quietly witness to the rudest, often starkest beauties of the natural world. For instance, he apparently liked veggies as much as I do:
A cool fall night—
Getting dinner, we peeled
I love Bashō's haiku. I also love pickles. Why put them together? In my mind, they're both simple, natural, and crisp. More importantly, as Rushdie argues, they are both ways of preserving something ephemeral: in the former case, a perfectly crystallized image, and in the latter, a perfectly ripe and firm vegetable or fruit. The moment, and the fruit, are dying even as you try to arrest their decay. Ironically, that's precisely why we value them so highly: they don't last.
I just finished reading Cheryl Strayed's book Wild, which is her account of the pilgrimage she took in the summer of 1995, a few years after the death of her mother, when she hiked over eleven hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone. She spends much of the time just trying to survive, but the memories break through sometimes, and she considers the weight of the history she carries. At one point, describing her sporadic and traumatic remembrances of her father, she says: "The good things aren't a movie. There isn't enough to make a reel. The good things are a poem, barely longer than a haiku."
I'm lucky enough to have enough material for mental movies and haiku, recordings of the last summer Rhea was alive, which oddly enough was the summer after Cheryl Strayed's trip. We likewise took a trip out West. (We made that pilgrimage again the next summer, for very different reasons.) My mental footage has Rhea standing in Arizona at dusk in a field of black-eyed Susans. In another scene, she is sawing on the edge of her water glass with her serrated knife at the El Tovar restaurant on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, looking bitchily sideways at me because she has taken some Tylenol-3 and is getting revenge on the snooty waiter, much to my humiliation. I see her radiant expression in the hot air balloon, just before sunrise when we are about to go up over Sedona, and she is assessing what it would take to hook our handsome young balloon pilot. I watch her face, months later, when she tells me she is going to die - in one of her last lucid moments—hoping that this time I will know the right thing to say.
Today marks the sixteen-year anniversary of the day my sister was diagnosed with leukemia. She wasn't even the first to know.
That spring she had started getting frequent dizzy spells and strange, knotty bruises on her legs, so my parents insisted she go to the doctor for some routine blood work. My mom, who was in school at the time at a local community college, was sitting in Spanish class the next day, when the security guard opened the door and called her out to take a phone call. She and my dad, who was at work, had been summoned by Wes, our family doctor. My parents converged in the parking lot of his office at the same time, just at the close of business hours, and they were ushered straight back to Wes's office, where the nurse offered them coffee.
A couple of hours later, I pulled into the driveway after a day of school and thrift store shopping. When I walked in, my mom was on the phone and shooed me out of the room. Hacked off, I paced the back porch, and then stomped in and testily asked what was up. I figured it was some kind of family drama. My mom was annoyingly evasive. After a few minutes, my parents told me to go sit on the couch and wait for them.
My movie reel slows on the expression on my dad's face when he sat down and took a breath before speaking. I've only seen that look once since, and that was just a couple of hours later, when he told Rhea. It looked like he was on the verge of laughing hysterically. His lips drew back from his teeth like a wild animal's. He said tightly, "Rhea has leukemia." I don't remember what I did or what I thought next.
|pickled in the same brine|
Rhea had gotten a part-time job at the daycare of a local fitness club. She got home that night after dark and starved, and she immediately opened a can of soup for dinner. My mom kept muscling her out of the kitchen, until Rhea started whipping her head around and giving her the snaky, narrow-eyed look she got when she was irritated.
When Dad told her, she was half lying, still pissed, in the same recliner where Jeff had been sitting earlier. I watched her from the couch. She went still. Her mouth pursed and then crumpled. She drew her knees up and quietly put both hands over her entire face. She has been sitting there like that for as long as I can remember.
The alphabet soup sat on the kitchen counter, partially opened, for an hour or so, before my mom dumped the entire thing uneaten into the trash, so that none of us, and especially Rhea, would have to remember the can of soup that marked the dividing line between Before and After.
Once a cucumber turns into a pickle, it can never change back.
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher sea salt
1/4 small onion
1 medium hothouse cucumber, washed
Add first three ingredients to a jar with a tightly-fitting lid. Cover and shake vigorously (or stir) until the salt and sugar are dissolved in the vinegar. Using a mandolin slicer (the tomato-red handheld one that Kyocera makes is very cool and inexpensive), slice the cucumber and the onion into slices - as thin or thick as you like them. Watch your fingers - those slicers are sharp. Add the cucumber and onion slices to the jar with the vinegar mixture. Cover tightly again and gently rotate jar until all of the vegetables have been doused.
Let it sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes, rotating the jar occasionally to re-coat the pieces with brine.
Recipe note: The lovely thing about pickles is that they're so versatile. Switch out the cucumber with cauliflower or radish, add a sliced chili pepper, some curry powder, and a garlic clove: Indian-spiced pickles. The sky's the limit. Preserve things to your heart's content.