Oma's Pumpkin Pickles
A pumpkin is a pod of plenty and paucity. Its taut hide restrains both a density of flesh, and a mass of debris – damp clinging fibres and flat, blanched seeds – that scramble the fruit’s dark chamber. None of this complexity is fully disclosed, it always seems to me, by a knuckle-rap to the exterior. Its heft and creased bulges resonate with the promise of simple, stolid bounty. A pumpkin does not blink. But as Simone Schwartz-Bart puts it, “Only the knife knows what goes on in the heart of a pumpkin.” Push your knowing knife into the hard flesh, feel the wound grip and resist the blade, lean down against the knife handle and slowly crack open the pumpkin’s halves. Now it yawns open, a strangely empty mess, the flesh already weeping clear, clean jewels of liquid. What is it that is really there? It’s not entirely clear where to find the meat of the thing. The preeminent icon of fullness and harvest, the splay of a pumpkin forces the cook to salvage and glean. The meal is in the remnant.
Perhaps this is why we feel compelled to coax pumpkins into becoming massive. Everyone loves a huge pumpkin. It’s the perfect side-show attraction: gather round! guess the weight! Its neon bulk is flatly baffling. Just how we like it. A pumpkin is an exaggeration, and we like to take the helm and steer it into further absurdity and marvel. We run it aground in its field, its orange knobble a picture of tilt and stasis, as if seized mid-roll. Each one a vagrant copy of another. Then we line it up for competition.
Laura Ingalls Wilder tells a suspenseful tale of pumpkin hopes in Farmer Boy. The young Almanzo, who will grow up to fall in love with Laura, nurtures a prize pumpkin by feeding it milk. He cuts a slit into the vine, then “under the slit Almanzo made a hollow in the ground and set a bowl of milk in it. Then he put a candle wick in the milk, and the end of the candle wick he put carefully into the slit. Every day the pumpkin vine drank up the bowlful of milk, through the candle wick, and the pumpkin was growing enormously.” When the day of the county fair arrives, Almanzo’s pumpkin gets rolled into a soft pile of hay, polished and sent off for the competition. A fat judge cuts a thin wedge of Almanzo’s pumpkin, conferring and comparing as the young boy grows ever more dizzy and breathless, before finally leaning over and thrusting a pin with a blue ribbon into the fruit. The prize, however, is not the end of it - Almanzo is made trembly by victory, and is struck by the sudden worry that his enormous pumpkin is a fraud because he fed it milk. The sickening lurch of inadvertent wrong-doing is often as much about the realization of the randomness of rule and regulation – the stakes are so high, but the laws so spectral. How are we to know? What if we are amnesiac learners, and forgot the rules on the way to the prize? When asked “How’d you raise such a big pumpkin, Almanzo?” he stammers between truth and deceit. He finally confesses the milk diet only to be reassured by a consortium of jovial men that some tricks are – wink wink – sanctioned. The glory of a win cannot, however, be fully restored, and the chapter ends with the young boy unsettled and anxious to shake off the flurry of the fair. A dark hollow lurks, perhaps, in every triumph.
But if Almanzo’s giant pumpkin and its success at the fair leaves him feeling empty, a giant pumpkin, I have learned, can also soothe lingering Weltschmertz. One evening over dinner with my friends Imke and Heidi, conversation fell to foods beloved but lost to us. Imke is from Germany and she told tale of her adored grandmother’s sweet and sour pumpkin pickles, and of their yearly production that would engulf the kitchen and engage all the grandchildren. The pumpkin recipe was the prized result of Oma's famous charm: long, long ago the grandmother had winkled it out of Frau Meyerholz, who made the pickles at the local delicatessen in Bremerhaven. The delicatessen shut up shop many years back and Imke had not tasted the pumpkin pickles since her grandmother’s death.
Now I am very partial to a pickle. It is a taste I have inherited from my mother’s side of the family, who all have ulcerous stomachs which they torture with their love obstinate of things preserved in brine. But I had never had pumpkin pickles before, and I was most intrigued. Imke promised to get hold of “Oma’s” recipe and translate it for me. In the meantime, she and Heidi left the suburbs and bought a lovely row house in Philadelphia. I quietly determined to surprise them with a jar of pumpkin pickles to celebrate their new home as a place of respite from the foot-weariness of emigration and the peripatetics of love and work.
The recipe that she delivered called for 10 kilos of pie pumpkin, and I set off to the market with both my bike baskets unfolded and ready to hold piles of small sweet pumpkins. But although the market’s weekly newsletter had promised pie pumpkins, when I arrived at the Fair Foods stall, there was nary a pumpkin to be seen. I asked Emily, the orders manager, and she smiled ruefully and pointed over my head. I turned in the direction of her gesture and saw one single enormous orange gourd, striped and handsome, snouted and tailed. It didn’t look like a pumpkin at all. Emily explained that she, too, had expected tiny pie pumpkins, but what had arrived from the farmer was a crate containing this single enormous gourd. It was a heritage varietal, as sugar sweet as the little pumpkins, but, like Almanzo’s prize of long ago, it was huge and glossy and self-satisfied. Emily was decidedly grim about her mistake – no-one would want a pumpkin that large and she was going to have to use it as decoration and take a loss. She glared at the pumpkin and it beamed back, sunnily oblivious, basking in its own, vast glory.
Happy for a shot at easy heroism, I borrowed some of the pumpkin’s smug satisfaction, and told her that I would take it off her hands and help balance the books. I basked in her gratefulness as she crammed my purchase into a giant brown paper bag of dubious strength. Then, heaving my burden up, I attempted what I thought was a suitably benevolent, airy kind of amble. I managed to keep that up for a few steps, turning to wave a cheery good-bye. But the pumpkin was not only big, it was heavy. By the time I reached the neighboring pastry stall, I had to lower the pumpkin to the ground, adopt a two-handed grip and start dragging the thing backwards toward the exit. Two people took pity on the pink and perspiring girl with the enigmatic encumbrance, holding open the double doors so that I could get to the bike stands, and another passer-by helped me heave the bag onto the rack on the back of my elderly cycle; the monster would not, of course, fit into my baskets. It perched, tipsy, on top, like Cinderella’s coach upon its delicate wheels. An anxious footman, I lured my be-pumpkined old bicycle home, holding my breath as I led it over curbs, and cursing aggressive motorists.
I wondered, in fact, how Cinderella managed, when her elegant coach stopped still on the stroke of midnight, reverting to pumpkin form and rodent scampering. Did she abandon it, exhausted by her magical journey from poverty and back again? Or was she so conditioned to servility and thrift that she hauled the massive thing home and turned it into pickle? Pickle is, after all, the pantry’s pre-eminent arbitrator of bounty and scarcity. Perhaps, when Prince Charming turned up with that crystal shoe, he found his beloved elbow deep in pickle brine.
At home, I hacked the beast open and began festooning the kitchen with pumpkin peel and innards. The recipe called for much and varied application of different vinegars and I set up stations with marinades and canning liquid, bubbling pots and cooling Ball Jars. Oma’s directions, filtered through time and translation, were detailed and idiomatic – it was much like having her at my side. There was only one feature upon which I stumbled. The recipe stated that my pumpkin should be cut “into smaller pieces” which was parenthetically translated as “(5 x 5 cm cubes).” I hesitated. These so-called “smaller pieces” were certainly smaller than the entire pumpkin, but still, 5 x 5 cm is roughly the size of a lime. This, to my mind, is substantial. Most of the pickles I’ve eaten have charmed in part through being diminutive – baby beets are baby, a piccalilli is made from delicate florets. A large dill cucumber pickle is one thing, but these slabs of pumpkin unnerved me. A quick browse of other pumpkin recipes, mostly Indian, didn’t help – they all called for tiny dice. My knife hovered, ready to cut my future pickles down to size. But then again the recipe was so careful, I couldn’t imagine that a mistranslation had occurred. I also remembered that Imke’s family happens to be a family of enormously tall, milk-fed people. Imke herself is 6 foot tall and she is the shrimp of the clan. I concluded that, “like people, like pickle,” and steamed ahead with the transformation of my giant pumpkin into slightly less giant pumpkin pickles. And anyway, my Ball Jars are marked “WIDE MOUTH.”
I bathed the pickles in herbal vinegar, and then set them up in a spiced and tooth-achingly sweet red vinegar in which I floated cinnamon sticks and coins of fresh ginger. The vinegar bath was so potent it made me cough as I stirred it. The filled jars had to rest for 2 weeks before we could deliver them to the threshold of a newly purchased and lovely home. Imke made a special corned-beef dinner called “labscouse” – a North German specialty – to accommodate the pickles, though she said that they are good with any meat dinner, from sausages to pork-chops to duck. Imke exclaimed pleasingly over the pickles’ “echt-ness,” giving particularly vigorous reassurance about the correctness of their size. We speared the pickles with forks and sliced through them, realizing that it is a rare joy to experience the firmness of pumpkin flesh; we are so used to the smooth, soft pies and cheesecakes of the fall season. But these pickles resisted and then yielded to the teeth in the most satisfying possible way. Their sweet, pumpkiny spiciness filled my whole head, sinuses and all, with flavor, and I lit up like a jack-o-lantern between bites of starchy potato and salty corned beef.
Hymn to the Belly
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Room! room! make room for the bouncing Belly,
First father of sauce and deviser of jelly;
Prime master of arts and the giver of wit,
That found out the excellent engine, the spit,
The plough and the flail, the mill and the hopper,
The hutch and the boulter, the furnace and copper,
The oven, the bavin, the mawkin, the peel,
The hearth and the range, the dog and the wheel.
He, he first invented the hogshead and tun,
The gimlet and vice too, and taught 'em to run;
And since, with the funnel and hippocras bag,
He's made of himself that now he cries swag;
Which shows, though the pleasure be but of four inches,
Yet he is a weasel, the gullet that pinches
Of any delight, and not spares from his back
Whatever to make of the belly a sack.
Hail, hail, plump paunch! O the founder of taste,
For fresh meats or powdered, or pickle or paste!
Devourer of broiled, baked, roasted or sod!
And emptier of cups, be they even or odd!
All which have now made thee so wide i' the waist,
As scarce with no pudding thou art to be laced;
But eating and drinking until thou dost nod,
Thou break'st all thy girdles and break'st forth a god.
SYLLABUS: OMA HANSSEN'S PUMPKIN PICKLES
For about 10 kilograms of pumpkin (a very approximate amount), the pieces of pumpkin will be filled into glasses together with the canning liquid and the spices. This means that one has to guess how much canning liquid one needs in order to fill the glasses; one can mix additional canning liquid if the first batch doesn’t suffice.
Peel the pumpkin and remove the seeds, down to where the pumpkin flesh is firm.
Cut the pumpkin into smaller pieces (5x5 centimeter cubes).
Marinade: Equal parts vinegar and water.
The necessary mixing relation is one part vinegar to one part water. Oma Hanssen always used something called “Doppelessig,” an intense vinegar that isn’t available in Germany anymore. Apparently, herbal vinegar is an acceptable substitute. (note from Syllabub: “double vinegar” is any vinegar that is over 6% vinegar. It was hard to find, but I found that Italian vinegars tend to be “double vinegars.”)
Put the pumpkin pieces into big tubs and pour the marinade over them. You don’t have to entirely cover the pumpkin, because the pumpkin is still going to release water – you can pour in marinade to about 6 cm below the level of pumpkin, but stir the pieces several times to make sure they are equally marinated.
Let sit for 24 hours, then discard the marinade.
Equal parts red wine vinegar (for the beautiful color) and water
Mix the liquid with the spices and the sugar and bring to a boil
Oma’s example for a medium pumpkin:
Approximately 1 liter vinegar and one liter water
2 kilograms sugar
3 pieces dried ginger (large, i.e., each should be the size of a small potato) or sliced fresh ginger (approximately 150 grams)
Cinnamon sticks: approximately 20 pieces that are 3 centimeters in length
Tasting and refining (very important)
--let some of the canning liquid cool down in a cup (it is very hot!) and taste; add additional spice in accordance with preferred taste (though this differs from person to person, of course, one should make sure that the solution is intensely sweet, sour, and spicy, because the taste will be soaked up by the pumpkin)
As necessary and in accordance with personal taste, more canning liquid can be mixed and cooked
Take the previously marinated pumpkin pieces and bring them to a boil in the canning liquid
Let cook until the pumpkin pieces turn slightly glassy in the margins
Fill the pieces into the clean canning jars
Fill to the rim with the hot canning liquid and the spices
Take the lids (twist-off is best; they should have been boiled before) and close tightly
Let sit at least 14 days before eating (it takes this long for the taste to become really good)