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Food Memories

by
John Sheirer

My mother made tons of pickles. One kind was called "sweet and sour." They were okay, sort of like sweet-and-sour pickle spears you might buy in the store. But my favorite was her "million-dollar pickle." I didn't care for cucumbers, but I was wild about million dollar pickles. They were cut in round chunks about an inch thick and tasted incredibly sweet. We usually ate them as a snack or side dish, rather than as a condiment. I sometimes ate them as a main course.

Mom made these pickles in ten gallon earthenware crocks. I'm not sure what she made them with, but my guess is lots of honey and brown sugar were mixed in with the vinegar. The pickles would sit in their crocks in the basement for weeks while the cucumber chunks took on the sweet brine flavor. I would sometimes go down and look at them, wishing they didn't take so long to make. Sometimes I'd even take the lid off of one of the crocks and sample an embryonic pickle before the batch was ready. It would still be bland and only a little sour, not sweet at all. It was hard to believe they would turn into precious million-dollar pickles, but they eventually did.

I liked them so much that when I came home from college, I'd eat them like candy, then take two or three jars back to school with me, as many as I could stuff into my suitcase without Mom noticing. I'd eat them in my dorm room as slowly as possible and only share them with my one or two absolute best friends-or with women who I wanted to impress.

Unfortunately, the pick-up line, "Wanna come back to my room for a million-dollar pickle" sometimes earned me a slap in the face.

***

We ate wild dandelion right from our yard. My grandmother would send me out to yank some from the ground before it went to seed while the flower was still yellow. Then she would sear it in ham grease, add little chunks of bacon, and serve it as a hot side dish.

I mentioned once out of politeness that I liked it, and my grandmother never forgot. Each time I came home from college, she would make dandelion because she thought it was my favorite food in the whole world. I would eat the big serving she loaded onto my plate, then ask for seconds, not wanting to hurt her feelings. But the truth was I had slowly learned to despise these bitter little greens. And, I confess, it felt more than a little strange to make a side dish out of a weed that grew in the yard.

***

We had only two holiday food traditions in our household. One was eating sour kraut on New Year's Day. My grandmother was convinced it would make all of us prosperous for the coming year. I have not continued this tradition as an adult. Maybe that's why I'm still paying off my student loan.

The worst tradition was eating oyster stew on Christmas Eve. I have no idea where this tradition originated. I only know that oyster stew is one of the worst foods a child could possibly be required to eat.

I sat around the kitchen table for an hour, nibbling crackers, sulking, and letting my oyster stew get cold-long after everyone else had finished their bowls. Finally, in a moment of desperation, I would tip the bowl to my mouth and gulp it all down as fast as I could, twisting my tongue to the side of my mouth in an unsuccessful attempt not to taste the vile, squishy stuff. Then I would sit for five minutes with my eyes closed, trying as hard as I could not to move because even the slightest movement would make me throw up. When the nausea finally passed, I would join my family around the Christmas tree. Mom would ask me, "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" and I would lie to her through the horrible taste that lingered in my mouth.

"No, Mom, I guess it wasn't."