Rediscovering my Ashkenazi heritage: pickling in a pandemic

More time has been made available to me during the pandemic, which hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. With a lighter schedule I have finally been able to learn how to prepare time-consuming dishes central to my Ashkenazi heritage. In particular, the iconic dill pickle. This endeavour has become a way for me to reconnect virtually with family and friends who are also interested in keeping Ashkenazi food traditions alive. 

As I read more about Ashkenazi food and the importance of cooking with seasonal products and preserving vegetables for colder, less bountiful months, I became drawn to pickling.  Since pickles take seven days to ferment and was the most time-consuming recipe I could find, it made them  perfect for this strange, never-ending weekend. I have always wanted to like dill pickles but I find most store-bought and homemade vinegar brined pickles too strong. I can only enjoy a bite or two before the flavours become overwhelming and my mouth starts to pucker. But since I’ve started preserving them using the process of lacto-fermentation I could eat an entire jar!

Before March, I did not know how to make labour-intensive dishes that took more than a couple hours, let alone seven days. I was apprehensive about whether this experiment would even work. 

The very idea of lacto-fermented pickles already sounded unappealing, mainly because I thought lacto meant that milk was an ingredient. If the recipe required pickles to ferment on the counter for days, wouldn’t it be dangerous to include dairy? Would I accidentally give myself food poisoning? However, after a quick Google search I learned the term refers to the salt-tolerating gut-friendly bacteria lactobacillus that hangs around after the bad bacteria (that makes us sick) has been killed by the salt water brine. After I learned this, I started to approach the process with less apprehension, but I still wasn’t sure I could do the job well. 

I needed to talk to an expert. So I video-called a friend who is a chef in Toronto and has roots in the Ashkenazi community in Montreal. She told me the process was simply a matter of having the right proportions and giving the pickles enough time to rest. She also assured me that they were not only easy to make but that homemade lacto-fermented pickles have a depth of flavour that exceeds that taste in vegetables that are just preserved in vinegar brine. 

When embarking on my pickling journey, I decided to start off small in case anything went wrong. I put about half a pound of pickles in a big ceramic bowl along with salt water, dill, and spices. I put another bowl on top  to keep the contents submerged, and draped a towel over the whole contraption.They sat for a week and made strange-looking salt stains on the counter. 

As time went on, the water started to go foggy. I was worried  I would find my first batch ruined, but the internet again assured me that this was perfectly normal. I underestimated the time it would take, and the spills I would have to clean, but after a week my pickles were done and it was well worth the agonizing wait!

The pickles were spicy, had fruity notes, and were wonderfully herbaceous. Admittedly, they weren’t as crunchy as I would have liked and the seeds in the centre made the pickles slightly soggy. I had used the small cucumbers you can find at grocery stores but soon after learned Kirby cucumbers are the best ones to use—they hold less water which means extra crunch. Now I just have to predict when I’ll have my next pickle craving, and try to resist opening the jar for seven days. 

By broadcasting my adventures in pickling on social media to friends and family I’ve learned that other family members enjoy the process too. Soon after my first post, one of my cousins was excited to hear I too was pickling things. They sent their old family recipe that suggested adding oak leaves for crunchier pickles. I’d only seen this in traditional Russian and Eastern European recipes which speaks to how deeply connected my family still is to our heritage. Since then, we’ve shared recipes for pickles and breads, and opened up conversations about commonalities I didn’t know we had.  

Making pickles has become part of my regular routine, though I haven’t tried adding oak leaves to my pickle brine yet. I have now expanded my repertoire and made sauerkraut! It was delicious, but the smell of garlicky cabbage really permeates in a small apartment. It is not for the faint of heart, unless you have a well-ventilated kitchen. 

With so many of us still staying at home I can’t go over to anyone’s house and catch up over a nice dill pickle (within 6 feet) but I am still thankful that I can share the joys and results of pickling virtually. At least I know that if I want to talk about my ups and downs with the process,  or reach out for a family recipe, I now have a new way to do so.

This is the second part of a three-part series. Read the first part here, and the third part, here

Header Image Design by Orly Zebak. Photographs courtesy of Gemma Johnson. Pickle Artwork by Gemma Johnson.  

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