I have lived in the South for almost 20 years, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally considered myself Southern.
In 1995, I made a cross-country exodus to North Carolina from an economically depressed Los Angeles. The hopes and dreams I wanted to find in LA were burned by riots, crushed by earthquakes and washed away by mudslides. (If the dream don’t fit, you must acquit. Right?)
I had never been to North Carolina, and I didn’t know a soul from the Tar Heel state. But the Triangle had garnered lots of attention back then. Plus, if my attempt at a better life went sour, I knew I could always go back home. When I landed in Carrboro, it reminded me a lot of the areas I grew up in and around in Maryland. A little bit of country, city and suburbia all rolled into one.
Here, I quickly learned that BBQ was a noun and not a verb. I discovered this the embarrassing (and hard) way, by showing up at a barbecue with hot dogs and hamburgers only to be greeted by the sight of a whole hog smoked on a grill.
And thus was my introduction to Southern eats.
Sweet tea? For years my mother made her own iced tea. Seven tea bags and a cup of sugar in boiling water and then let it cool. I know that recipe by heart. But down here in N.C., the sweet tea is sweet enough to “make your teeth itch,” as my father would say.
I can’t recall ever having anything that might be considered “Southern fare” as a child. My inner gourmand was raised on a diet based on my mom’s Scottish frugalness, Philly’s Italian deli and pasta culture, and a 1950s homemaker style. Charcuterie? That was just called cheese and crackers. Braciole? That was what my mother fixed me as a birthday dinner for years. Casserole dinners? Canned and frozen food, mixed together, then baked to perfection.
But here: shrimp and grits? Oh, hell yeah. Collard greens? They can be bitter, but toss in the ham hock, load them up with garlic and let me have at it. Black-eyed peas? Sometimes they brought me good luck. Pimento and cheese? On toasted sunflower bread with a fried green tomato, please. Hush puppies? Still like some hot sauce with them. Pulled pork? I like mine served up Eastern-style. Okra? A nice garnish for my Bloody Mary.
Although I knew how to slow cook my own pork butt, fry up my own green tomatoes or make deviled eggs topped with jalapeño, I still did not consider myself a Southerner. That changed when I began to pickle.
A fellow writer had brought in a jar of his family’s Polish Pickled Green Tomatoes to the office we share. I asked for the recipe; he said it was a family secret. So I took a chance and decided to replicate it. I bought a jug of distilled white vinegar, a couple of packets of Mrs. Wages kosher dill pickle mix, green tomatoes and jalapeños.
It was pretty simple and easy. Dialing in the recipe took a few passes, as did figuring out how important the ripeness (or unripeness, if you will) of the vegetable weighs on the process. Except for red onions, you want your pickled item to retain a crunch and not grow soft and limp.
I made your standard kosher dill pickles. But I wanted more, something different. I added Brussels sprouts to the jalapeño and green tomatoes. I did jalapeños and asparagus. While my pickled products were good enough to eat by themselves, I began to use them in salads or pasta dishes. I kept a jar of pickled red onion around for carnitas.
In an airline magazine I discovered a recipe for habanero and garlic pickles that was pulled from Edward Lee’s book Smoke & Pickles. My first batch was too strong and not for the faint of heart. To tone down the heat, I added more sugar to the recipe. With leftover brine I made a habanero and horseradish Bloody Mary mix. Soon after, I created a sampler jar dubbed the Boy Howdy: a mix of habanero and garlic-pickled asparagus, cucumber, red onion and a hard-boiled egg.
Suddenly my apartment was awash in mason jars. I started going to farmers markets, scouring the stands for vegetables that I could pickle. I was limited only by my own imagination.
And then it hit me: I had fully embraced the do-it-yourself, homesteader lifestyle of a true Southerner. I was making canned goods with seasonal ingredients to share with my friends and family. I had learned the value of maximizing a harvest and, in turn, also learned the value of community.
I had arrived. It was 18 years in the making, but I had finally become a Southerner.
This article appeared in print with the headline “How pickling changed my life.”