The Decay of the Domestic and the Rise of the Pickle

Preserving keeps touch with seasonality by bottling small moments of pleasure, yet the home practice of preservation is a food tradition with deep historical antecedents.  To pickle can be seen as a political act that positions people as producers rather than consumers. It is also good for the soul.

The Pickle Zeitgeist

During the Depression, a confluence of conditions arose, which saw the backyard become a site of production. Bread and butter cucumbers are just one legacy of a time when the unemployed could, if they were lucky, tend a vegie patch and preserve nature’s boon for leaner times.

The pinnacle of knowledge about home-based preserving occurred when necessity was greatest. Recently, pickling and preserving have experienced a resurgent interest. The pickle zeitgeist sees the practice of preserving continuing to be political by eschewing multinational supermarkets and conspicuous consumption, and returning the home to a site of production.

Mise en place

I belong to a loose network of people who meet every couple of months to swap preserves. With tongue-in-cheek we call ourselves the ‘Northern Preservation Society’, but otherwise it’s ‘pickle club’. We are a rabble of bee-keepers and gardeners, cooks and queers, workers and renters, parents and artists. I’m a young man in my thirties and the other members are a mixture of genders and cultural backgrounds. We share a love of food and what might be described as a ‘food politic’.

Whilst not always articulated and not always something that has consensus, underneath our pickling practices are political tensions. These are obvious in our conversations, observations and in our desire to produce, as much as possible, rather than consume. We want our food to be known to us – to be seasonal – not bought, but grown in our backyards. We want the methods of production to be humane, thoughtful and careful.

No Botulism: The First Rule of Pickle Club
(Botulism: food poisoning caused by a bacterium (botulinum) growing on improperly sterilized canned meats and other preserved foods)

There’s an effort required to maintain an ongoing interest in preserving whilst the going is good. The methods vary. On the one hand, we have the old-fashioned method, which uses sugar and vinegar and heat to bottle up goodness. This is the domain of the Fowler’s Vacola, where sterilisation is key. On the other hand we have fermenters: followers of Sandor Katz, the King of Kraut. At one pickle club, someone popped the lid off a jar of tomatoes and announced, “This has been in the sun for days”. The tang of bubbling tomatoes is the closest botulism moment I’ve had. Somewhere in between lays Yoda’s do or do not, there is no try. Other methods for preserving have included potted meats and fish, candied fruits and peel, and dehydration.

The Effort and the Reward

When the boon of five kilos of blood plums comes your way, you have to make hay.

Sometimes I find myself stirring fruit over the stove and muttering passive aggressive things. I can’t say that I’ve made each and every jar of chutney with love, but I persist. This is the effort. Chutney is the reward.

The pleasure of these preserves manifests when, in mid-winter, you open a jar and summer is evoked. Much like a fine wine, a good preserve will peak months or even years after the memory of the effort has faded. We are still getting through the ten kilos of olives we bottled two years ago.

The Path to Enlightenment

Inevitably, once you start pickling, you want to start gardening. It’s a path to happiness. It’s a path to like-minded people. It’s a path to community. Swapping preserves at pickle club has introduced me to host of other people: I’ve been invited to honey harvest, I’ve made my own beer and vinegar, I’ve offered fruit from my tree to people I know will care enough to not let the excess go to waste.

The top shelf of my fridge is a culinary aide memoir: Lucy’s jalepenos, James’s fermented chilli sauce, Jo’s piccalilli, Wendy’s achar. Best of all, each jar reminds me of that person and their effort, and of good times shared.

The Historical Record
The cookbooks produced by a myriad of small church groups, women’s associations and returned soldiers stand as an ephemeral testament to a bygone era where food required effort. There are snippets of things that are worth sharing about the history of pickling in Australia. From the domestic science movement came the Country Women’s Association and a range of other groups and politics: The Rechabites promoted temperance in the 1930s whilst others have claimed the Housewives Association become a front for a supressed communist party in the 1950s. Compare these politics to today’s post-MTV world where food is a symbolic status used to promote individual aspirations: think Masterchef, think UrbanSpoon. Whilst we all want to be the king or queen of pickle club, competitive pickling doesn’t have the same value as a well-cultured friendship.

A Feminist Rant
Kitchen gardens are now part of schools, albeit in a hit-and-miss way. I have this theory that whilst the 1970s were remarkable for the political shift that liberated (some) women from the drudgery of the domestic, there was something that fell through the gap left behind. Domestic schools closed as aprons were hung up. Into this gap leaped a new genre of celebrity: the chef. The virtue of thrift was previously the domain of well-rounded domestic science graduates, teachers who understood food chemically and nutritionally and who planned meals that were economic, healthy and human. Now, these messages have commercial value: they sell cookbooks.

A Recipe is a Gift
Recipes evolve and the way we transmit them changes styles. Is there a maxim that the earlier the cookbook, the more perfunctory the recipe, whilst the more modern the cookbook, the higher the production value? Do our preferences today mean that we need to see a high-production value photograph before we are, perhaps, enticed to cook a recipe? Do cookbooks function more as aesthetic objects rather than utilitarian texts? I like to think of a recipe as a gift. So here, for those who have obliged my nostalgic meanderings around food politics, is a recipe for Bread and Butter Cucumbers that has served me well, and for which I attribute back to a friend’s mum, who probably just copied it out of a cookbook.

Paulina’s Mum Maria’s Bread and Butter Cucumbers

  • 2kg cucumbers, sliced thinly
  • 2kg onions, sliced thinly
  • 5 cups cider vinegar
  • 5 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp celery salt
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • Ground pepper
  • 1 cup or more of salt
  • Ice

In a big bowl layer the cucumber and onions & sprinkle with lots of salt. Cover with ice and a weight. Leave at least 3 hours or overnight.

Drain the water off. Wash and drain again until little or no salt taste remains.

In a large saucepan heat the vinegar, sugar, celery salt, turmeric, mustard seed and pepper. When it starts to boil, add the cucumbers and onions. Let it come to the boil and remove from heat. Don’t stew the cucumbers, but the germs must be killed.

Put in sterilised jars. (To sterilise jars, boil them in water, or place in hot oven).

Bottle. Lid on and turn upside down to complete the sterilization. Refrigerate after opening.

Note: I add a packet of pickling spices and have never been able to locate ‘celery salt’, so I’ve omitted it. Sometimes I’ve used less than the specified amount of onion.