Published September 20, 2007 by Sara Davidson
It’s the moment of truth. Six glass jars have been sitting in my garage for three weeks. Like a mother hen, I’ve been watching them as the water inside turned cloudy and the cucumbers morphed from bright green to a yellowish pea color. Nervously, on the 21st day, I open the jar. Fzzzzzzzt! The brine bubbles and spurts – it’s alive! I pull out a pickle, take a bite and…. Glory to God! It’s the exact same taste as the dill pickles my Hungarian grandfather used to make, every year when I was growing up.
“Best pickle I ever tasted,” says my friend, Jenna Buffaloe
His pickles set the standard: crisp, tangy, juicy, spicy, a symphony of flavors, whereas all other pickles I’ve tasted have at most, two or three. Even pickles from delis on the lower East side of New York taste tepid by contrast with Grandpa Louie’s. His pickles were comfort food; every time someone in our family moved to a new home, one of us would bring a jar of pickles and set it in the kitchen. No house was a home without it. No holiday table was complete without a dish of pickles. But when my grandfather passed away in the 70’s, his pickles died with him.
But not the memories – of pickles or the man. Grandpa Louie was the first person whom I felt loved me unconditionally. He was short, with a bulbous nose, lively blue eyes and a full-bodied laugh that was infectious. I was sure that I was his favorite grandchild, but when I grew up, I found that all the other grandkids felt the same. He would give each one his total attention, and make us feel unique, talented, golden and irresistible. He understood people, especially kids, and accepted all human failings with tender compassion. Every child in our neighborhood called him Grandpa.
In the fall, our extended family followed a ritual: we gathered in the upstairs apartment where my grandpa and grandma lived, in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. A lug of Kirby cucumbers would be soaking in the bathtub. Ten or twelve of us would form an assembly line: boiling jars and lids, peeling garlic, washing fresh dill, measuring spices and dried red peppers. Then came the challenge: Who could squeeze the most pickles into a single jar? It was like fitting puzzle pieces together. No matter how well we thought we’d done it, Grandpa would come over and, with his big, red fingers, squeeze and push until he was able to cram in one more pickle. Then the jars were sealed, and each family took home several dozen, to be rationed out over the coming months. The longer we waited to open the jars, the hotter the pickles would be, and those we opened at the end of the year would burn your mouth. They were our favorites.
In college, when my friends and I took up cooking, I thought I should write down the pickle recipe to preserve it. But that wasn’t simple, since Grandpa never measured anything. He’d grab a handful of dried herbs from a greasy brown paper bag and drop some into each jar.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Mixed spices,” he said.
“Where do you get them?”
“The Royal Market, on Fairfax.” There is no more Royal Market, it’s been replaced by a Salvadoran grocery, and heaven knows what was in that brown paper bag.
Over the years, it occurred to me to try making the pickles, but I never got around to it. Each time someone would offer me a pickle that they thought was great, I’d taste it and be overcome with sadness and longing. Grandpa’s pickles, it seemed, were gone with the wind.
Then the Gods intervened. Two years ago, I was walking through Whole Foods when I spotted a tub filled with giant stalks of fresh-picked dill from a local farm. I’d never seen stalks so tall, and so fragrant they were intoxicating. I took it as a sign: Make pickles. NOW. I bought the dill and all the other ingredients, but what the hell would I substitute for mixed spices from the Royal Market? I settled on McCormick’s pickling spices, worrying that the pickles wouldn’t come out the same. I put up a test run of six jars, waited the requisite 3 weeks and, with trepidation, took the bite. Oh great joy! It was like Proust with his damned Madeleine. The pickle brought back my childhood, and I wanted to cry.
I’ve just finished making my third batch, and my friends and relatives fight over the jars. If your mouth is watering, I must warn you: this pickle may not be your thing. Some folks, for reasons I can’t fathom, prefer sweet pickles or French cornichons or full sour pickles from a barrel in Brooklyn. It depends what style pickle you were weaned on, and for me it was these:
PICKLES FROM GRANDPA LOUIE
Put wide-mouthed quart jars through dishwasher tosterilize. Wash cucumbers (firm pickling cukes). Boil lids in a shallow pot to sterilize them.
In each quart jar, put:1 Tbsp kosher salt, dissolved in a little water1 Tbsp pickling spices (I use McCormick)2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled1 or 2 dried hot red peppers (Depends how hot you like ‘em)2 sprigs or more fresh dill
Pack pickles into jar. Cover with water, but leave a half inch air on top, between water and lid. Remove lid from hot water with tongs, place on top of jar and seal. Shake jar well. Keep in a cool dark place for 3 weeks or more. DO NOT OPEN before ready to eat, or pickles will go bad. If the jars bubble over, let them bubble.
You can also use large, 2-quart jars. Simply double the ingredients.