Pickled, Again

Not that kind of pickled—although it’s been known to happen. I’m making pickles. Although Jakarta doesn’t have a designated “summer,” as the temperatures are pretty much the same year round, between 78 and 90, night and day, and there aren’t really "longer days" as this close to the equator night and day are pretty evenly divided into 12 hour periods with sunrise around 6 am and sunset around 6 pm, it feels like summertime: school vacations are on, most of the Expats are off on holidays,  everyone “back home” is hot and getting hotter, and so my internal clock is calling “canning season.”

We made pickles last fall, too. “We” being Rusnati and I.  While we had made mango chutney together, before, it was our first pickling season. Rusnati bought about 30 kilos of cucumbers, onions, peppers and we diced and sliced and marinated and cooked for days. We made Bread and Butter Pickles (Curtis’s favorites), Sweet Lime Pickles, Hot Pepper Relish, Corn Relish, Sweet Relish, and Fennel-Garlic Spears (which Curtis hates).

It did not turn out to be a “fun” little project for Aan, who traipsed all over buying up canning jars two or three at a time rather than buy the box, and mustard seeds late at night, and dill, which turned out to be fennel (hence the “fennel-garlic” spears instead of “dill spears”), or for Rusnati, who chopped onions

and deseeded peppers until her eyes ran and fingers burned, and washed sink loads of pots and pans and bowls, strainers and spatulas and jars and more, or for Curtis, who not only paid for all the pickling supplies and fuel, but also paid dearly in time spent listening to me fret and plan and calculate. It was an event worth writing about. Maybe reading, if so, click back on the Oct. 2009 posting titled “Pickled”

Canning—really “bottling,” as we preserve the food in glass bottles and jars, brings me close to my grandmother, Nanny.

The first batch of jam I remember us making wasn’t strawberry, though. It was plum. Made from plums plucked from the next door neighbor, Emily’s, tree. Emily and her husband, Jerry, were gone and we were minding their house, which included plum picking privileges.

Plum jam is easier that other types because you don’t peel the plums first as the peeling adds color and flavor to the jam. All we had to do was wash, pick, halve and deseed the plums—eating as many as we liked in the process. Side by side, Nanny and I leaned over the kitchen sink to sample the ripest, softest plums—too ripe for jam. So sweet and succulent the juices rolled down our chins, plopping like purple rain into the sink.

Nanny always made her jam in the turkey roaster as a larger surface air dispersed the juices over a larger area, giving us more control over the jam’s quality. My first "important job" as I recall was "keeping it from burning." I'd stand on a footstool beside the stove stirring the juice, pectin and sugar mixture, watching and waiting as it heated and bubbled, turning from murky to clear, glossy, thick syrup, while Nanny supervised. After the jam was jarred, a layer of hot wax was poured over the top and the jars were set aside to cool. Then came the fun part—the part my brother, Joe (then Joey) always showed up for. (Although now that I think of it, I bet Joey would have liked to have been invited to make jam with us. But jam making was “woman’s work” in Nanny’s eyes, and I liked keeping it that way!) Joey was invited to the “tasting” part, as was my grandfather, Poppy, who’d always bring home fresh, crusty French bread to serve as spoons. That first batch of plum jam was puckery tart and runny. Not exactly “Blue Ribbon,” but pure gold.

Nanny was the 3rd of 9 children raised in Gustine, a town in California’s Central Valley, “God’s Garden” as Nanny called it (when she wasn’t calling it “hotter than hell”). Back then, in the icebox days, “canning season” began when the early peas came in and continued through the fall into butchering time.

While we hulled berries or stirred our fruity brews, Nanny would share childhood canning stories. Some funny, some gross, all mentioning the words “hot” and “sweaty” and “miserable heat” many, many, many times, and one that I’ve repeated and will again. It begins with a plum tree. The biggest plum tree, upon which grew the darkest, richest, biggest plums in town. (Maybe Gustine, maybe Watsonville, I won’t say.) Big and sweet and luscious as those plums looked no one dared to go near that tree. Not because anyone warned them to stay away. Not because they were hard to reach—the fruit hung so heavy on the branches they sometimes brushed the ground. But because, the tree stood in the middle of a field beside the town mortuary and, as everyone knew, as part of preparing the bodies, the undertaker drained all the blood from the bodies. And, while no one had ever seen the hose, it was a well known fact that he drained the blood into that field. That blood is what made that tree grow so large, and that fruit grow so big and ripe and dark, dark, blood red. Vampire plums...

I put up my first preserves when I was 13, living with my mom and brother on Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach. For some reason, we had a bushel of ripe tomatoes and I decided to preserve them—even though I hated stewed tomatoes with a gut wrenching  passion. I found a recipe in the Betty Crocker Cookbook, rode my bike to the store to buy supplies and jars and spent the better part of a day and night stirring  up a few batches of sauce. (Sauce that looked so pretty in jars lined up on the shelf that I wouldn't let anyone use it.)  Nanny wasn’t there to help me, but I told her about it and made darn sure she saw them on her next visit.

This year, making pickles was an aside that came from Rusnati and my discussion about “Mister’s Lunches." Mister, Curtis, loves his pickles and we'd run out. Rusnati does not--never ever--like to run out of anything Mister likes. Be that as it may, I have a feeling that “pickling” hadn’t been as much fun as expected. Usually, when I’m in the kitchen cooking, Rusnati likes to be right there with me, cutting (sometimes taking my knife), stirring, (whatever I have the spoon), putting a hand into kneed (even when I’m elbow deep in flour), crimp the edge of the pie (my favorite part) and, if nothing else, washing everything (which I love!). This pickle session, Rusnati dutifully washed the cucumbers (only 15 kilos this time), placed them on the counter beside the five bottles of vinegar and 5 bags of sugar, said “sampai jumpa, selamat ahir mingu, see you later, have a nice weekend,”  and left.

So Rusnati wasn’t with me to make pickles this year. But Nanny was. Just like she is every “canning season,” standing beside me as I stirred the bowling brew, spooned hot pickles into jars, capped and sealed each jar in the boiling water bath. Right there as I sampled the first of this year’s sweet lime pickles on a slice of fresh, crusty buttered French bread.

Ah, Summer Time! Sweet, Summer Time, Summer Time!