Few foods come more heavily laden with psychological baggage than a jar of home-made pickles or preserves. A shelf of these multicoloured memory-caskets, says food writer BEE WILSON, can be either twee or punk, and can speak of both old-fashioned survivalism and modish sophistication.
Want to show you have old-fashioned survival skills?
Bring out the pickle jars.
During this year’s US presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton countered rumours about her health by opening a jar of pickles with her bare hands in the middle of an interview on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Fighting fit! Of course this was done partly — partly — in jest, but the joke only worked because pickles, and their parent category of preserves, remain such a powerful symbol of self-reliance.
Preserved goods are the food of pioneers. They are there in O Pioneers!, with Alexandra’s mother displaying a positive ‘mania’ for creating them. The old Swedish woman roams the prairie looking for any wild fruits — ‘fox grapes’, ‘goose plums’, the ‘rank buffalo pea’ — that she can boil up with sugar. The results are a bit heartbreaking.
The rationale is to provide the family with a source of winter calories, but in truth she makes preserves more for psychological reasons than culinary ones: the sheer amount of sugar required for all these jams is a drain on the household finances. Mrs Bergson’s preserves reassure her that in this godforsaken, inhospitable landscape, she is still civilised.
The urge to preserve has never been strictly logical. These days, it is less so than ever. In an era of fridges and readily available Bonne Maman, preserving is less about survival and more about make-believe. I doubt we’ll ever eat the jars of green tomato chutney we have left over from my bout of overenthusiastic pickling a few years ago.
We almost never eat the kinds of meal where green tomato chutney is required, something I might have considered before I got carried away and made three litres of the stuff. Not having an orchard or an allotment, jam making also gives me mixed feelings. To use vast amounts of sugar to ‘preserve’ shop-bought fruit to which I have no personal connection seems an exercise in artifice.
A better argument for pickling and preserving in modern life is not to make food last so much as to transform its flavour. At this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, a young chef called Thom Eagle, of Darsham Nurseries, spoke of using pickles as a way to ‘salvage flavour from rubbish’, of taking cavolo nero stalks and fermenting them with salt ‘to an almost truffle-like pungency’ in a kind of improvised kimchee.
Preserving is shedding its Women’s Institute connotations. To ferment your own sauerkraut and dehydrate your own foraged mushrooms is, today, nigh-on edgy. On a recent trip to Copenhagen, I was struck by the way in which, in the various new-wave Nordic restaurants, it is now virtually compulsory to display a row of beautiful Mason jars filled with various ferments and pickles: a plain wooden shelf at Bror, run by two formersous-chefs from Noma, houses transparent containers of varying sizes inside which lurk murky-green moss, elderflowers, bright pink rose petals, cucumbers and rosehips. The row of jars comes across as a statement of the kitchen’s seriousness.
Yet the appeal of preserves is still mostly symbolic. It is ourselves we are preserving. Things in jars exert an extraordinary emotional attachment. Preserves anchor us to the past, to our own past and to a more distant one where all those pioneers knew what to do with a funnel and a long preserving spoon.
You spend a fortune on labels and jelly bags and thermometers, all to reassure yourself that you are not the kind of person who needs to buy stuff.
You do not have to eat a preserve to be comforted by it. In fact, it’s better in a way if those jars are left unopened, indefinitely, in readiness. In a recent book titled Batch, the Canadian couple Joel MacCharles and Dana Harrison write about laying down 300 jars of food in just six months. They don’t reveal how two people could possibly get through so many preserves. Their store cupboard is a pickling cornucopia, with salted citrus, jams galore, neat rows of pressure-canned asparagus. I desperately wish I had all this, even though I don’t much care for canned asparagus. It’s the concept that’s appealing. To own such a larder is to reassure yourself that whatever horrors might lie ahead, you are prepared.
Incidentally, if you’ve ever opened a pickle jar you know you don’t actually need strong hands to open one. Just bang the edge of the lid forcefully on a table or chopping board and it pops right open.
BEE WILSON is a food writer and historian. Her most recent book was First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Fourth Estate). Looking back, she told THR , the last time she fully felt like a pioneer was when she was seven, a time when every day she would pioneer something such as a new swimming stroke or a new way to spread butter or hit conkers. The only time she gets glimmers of that pioneer freedom now is when she cooks or writes.