Last summer, the summer of my 35th year, was not what I’d expected. Instead of lazy days spent exploring local farms, picking berries, making jam, and stalking frogs with my two young sons, my agenda was rewritten to accommodate some unwelcome news: a diagnosis of breast cancer.
Suddenly my summer calendar was filled with quite unsummerly activities: biopsies, MRIs, drastic and unpleasant surgeries, physical therapy, and chemotherapy. Not exactly what I had in mind for a vacation.
As much as I would have liked to have written off the entire summer, holing up for the duration in a dark bedroom, this was not a realistic scenario. My children still needed to be potty-trained, supervised in their many schemes, and hosed down occasionally. Plus, we still needed to eat. The generosity of friends and neighbors kept dinners arriving on our doorstep and our freezer well stocked. For this I remain forever grateful. But there was still the rather large matter of our CSA bounty.
Our share in a local community farm was an important part of our weekly summer routine: filling cloth bags with that week’s harvest, picking our own peas and beans, the kids chasing bugs and building forts out of hay bales. But this summer the volume of vegetables, once a welcome sight, was met with a groan. I loved all of the fresh produce, but once I got it home, I had no energy left to do anything with it.
As the summer progressed, the groaning only increased. Chemo wasn’t sitting well with me. If I wasn’t nauseated every second, then I was exhausted by the most minor exertions. My crisper morphed into a morgue. I watched firm, once-vibrant vegetables shrivel up and die right before my eyes. This was not particularly good for my state of mind.
At some point during my chemo regimen, I realized that there were four days at the end of each two-week period when I could function to some reasonable degree before I got hit with the next debilitating round of chemicals. During that time, I gathered whatever determination I could muster and directed it toward completing one minor task. More often than not, that task was pickling.
My body absolutely craved the farm-fresh produce, and I found that, much like during pregnancy, pickled vegetables were incredibly satisfying. Pickling also enabled me to save some of summer’s fleeting bounty for later, when I’d be more likely to enjoy it. Plus, it was a practical and achievable goal that lessened the despair of being reduced to something not unlike a vegetable myself.
Suddenly, I had an urgent need to pickle everything in sight. I started with easy refrigerator pickles. Unlike fermented pickles, which require time soaking in a salty brine for anywhere from a week to a month or more, refrigerator pickles are usually quickly steeped in a hot vinegar bath and are ready to eat within 24 hours. After that, they keep well in jars in the refrigerator for a month or two.
Cucumbers were the obvious choice for quick pickling. They were plentiful in my crisper and a familiar subject for my novice pickling skills. I had a favorite bread-and-butter pickle recipe that was always a hit with my family, and I made several easy jars of these. But soon I ran out of cucumbers. I then turned to the piles of green tomatoes that had accumulated on the counter.
Last year’s widespread tomato blight meant no ripe local heirlooms would make it to our table that summer, but our farm rescued and distributed lots and lots of unblighted green tomatoes. Lacking the wherewithal to fry them, I made green-tomato relish. It was excellent on hot dogs, which was fortunate, since that’s what my summer meals were reduced to during my bad weeks.
Then came more experimentation. Pickled beets. Pickled cauliflower. Butternut squash pickles with whole cardamom. Oil-cured carrots with ginger and sesame seeds. The carrots we ate less like pickles and more like typical vegetables, piling them up like a side dish next to stir-fries.
Not all of my pickling experiments were triumphs. There were the half-sours. Moderate success with making my own sauerkraut led me to attempt half-sour pickles. The process is basically the same except instead of chopped cabbage, you submerge whole cucumbers in a crock full of saltwater with garlic and other flavorings, place a weight on top so the water level rises entirely over the vegetables to prevent rot, and wait for anaerobic fermentation to work its fizzy magic.
Half-sours, I knew from working at a sandwich shop in high school, had only a half-dose of fermentation, and were therefore quicker to make and had a milder flavor, as if they had just been plucked from the sea. I loved them. I did not, however, love my homemade version of them. They were hideous. Inedible. They tasted as if they had been pickled in the urine of an unknown farm animal.
Still, I saved them in jars in the back of the refrigerator like a benign science experiment gone terribly but intriguingly awry. In my quest to prolong life, what monstrousness had I created? Had I transformed into a kind of culinary Dr. Frankenstein? Still, I couldn’t throw them away. With every jar of pickles I created, I felt I was somehow preserving a piece of my former self.
I don’t remember very much about that summer, but I do remember the pickles. After I had sufficiently recovered from my last round of chemo, I scanned the shelves of my refrigerator. I could see my good days memorialized with jar after jar of beautiful pickles, and a few murky containers of half-sours floating in dubious, possibly toxic fluids. Once my hair started to grow back, I found it within myself to let the half-sours die the death they deserved in an unmarked grave. But the pleasures of the rest of the pickles lived on — well beyond their expiration dates, I might add.
Based in Boston, Tammy Donroe is a mother of two, a freelance writer, and a cancer survivor. She blogs at Food on the Food.
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