Make our own pickles, save the (old) world

Most days, all I really want in life is a crunchy snack. Sure, I want happiness for my friends and family, inner peace and a healthy life, but in the meantime I’ll just settle for something crisp and tasty.

If you’ve been following my brief path of columns, you may have come to realize that I’m a music lover. What you may not yet know is I’m also food obsessed.

But thanks to a lifelong vegetarian and vegan diet, my Jewish deli choices often are limited to my own homemade versions of meatless sammies and potato salad — or, if I’m stopping by a deli counter, the traditional dill pickle.

I recently got a chance to celebrate my love for all things pickled at the Contemporary Jewish Museum with fellow fermented-veggie lovers. The museum’s drop-in arts workshop RitLab was all about food last week.

Dubbed “What’s on Your Plate? Pickling, from Farm to Table,” the do-it-yourself crafters’ meet-up included guest instructors Renna Khuner-Haber of the food conference Hazon and Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah, who shared insights on the role food plays in social justice.

The ground floor of the museum was packed with smartly dressed young adults, a cluster of teens and a few bubbes (one of whom wore a fabulous oversize parrot-blue hat).

There was light nosh provided by Mission mainstay Bi-Rite Market and materials to decorate our jars with homemade stamps, sticky labels and raffia ties. But first, we all had to wait in a long line of eager attendees to fill our jars with some pickle-making basics.

As we waited to choose our cucumbers and spices, Golden offered perspective on the activity, explaining its historic significance and recalling the Old World where Jewish grandmothers fermented vegetables out of necessity due to lack of refrigeration.

Golden explained why we make pickles in salt water, instead of the vinegar used in commercial varieties. “The vinegar essentially kills the vegetable,” he said, scrunching his nose. “Fermenting vegetables in salt water gives you active cultures and antioxidants.”

Once we made it to the front of the line, we were met by volunteers ready to give advice and answer questions as they stood by bowls of fresh garlic, peppercorn, coriander seed, bay leaves, dill, ginger and jalapeño pepper.

The particular spiciness or tanginess of the eventual pickles depend on these ingredients, so I took my time choosing, finally walking away with lots of ginger and dill. My partner-in-jarring chose excessive amounts of garlic.

From a huge silver bowl, we picked three or four organic pickling cucumbers each while volunteers ladled out the salt water, filling our jars to the very top. I went to grab some hummus and pita on my way to the work stations, but it seemed the museum had anticipated a smaller crowd, so plates of tortilla chips had replaced the gourmet nosh. Sitting next to Erika Coplon, chair of Emanu-El’s social justice committee, I learned that this was indeed the case. She said it was the largest RitLab turnout yet.

I could see why. There was something so pleasant and calming about the whole process — including sitting at a paper-covered table, cutting hearts and lightning bolts out of foam to make stamps for my pickle jar. Learning about vegetables while getting to use the creative side of my brain was the perfect remedy for a long week of work, bills, computing and commuting.

On each table was a placard with this quote from author Michael Pollan: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. When you pick up that box of yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can’t pronounce, ask yourself, ‘What are those things doing there?’”

It certainly got me thinking. Though I avoid food with animal and animal by-products, my diet definitely doesn’t make me immune to processed foods. In reality, sometimes I fear I eat even more of those types of strange Frankenfoods in my quest to replicate traditional diets.

With my large jar full of salt water–soaked cucumbers slowly fermenting atop my fridge as you read this (they take at least eight days to turn into pickles), I have a daily reminder of the need to get back to basic, farm-to-table foods. It’s what my bubbe would’ve wanted.

Emily Savage
lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]