When life hands you a pickle, make gherkins. Kim Knight on preserves and self-preservation.
The can opener was invented in 1858. Nobody told my mother.
When we wanted spaghetti, she opened an Agee jar. Other kids had Wattie's - sweet surreal-red sauce, fat wiggly worms of pasta. Our spaghetti was the orange of a faded velvet cushion. You could see real tomato seeds and I am sure it had bacon in it but when I asked Mum to email the recipe, it wasn't there.
Boil tomatoes and onions. Strain. Boil a packet of spaghetti. Drain. Combine with butter, curry powder, sugar and salt. Boil 20 minutes. Bottle.
"Just shows how time changes things," my mother writes. "Looks pretty bland but this was the base of my homemade pizza, so I guess it was jazzed up with bacon, salami. More onion, herbs and tasty cheese and anything else that was in the fridge. If I was making it again, I certainly would be adding extra ingredients to give it more flavour."
Every single word of this sentence is soaked in my mother's pragmatism. It is culinary crime on top of culinary crime (there would definitely be pineapple on that spaghetti pizza) yet she sees a silk purse that might become a roast dinner with extra crackling. So good, that one day, she might make this again.
I write back: Why didn't we just buy tinned spaghetti?
I don't write back: It was 1979 and even KFC had weaponised fried chicken in the feminist fight against women staying home and doing all the cooking and you definitely weren't supposed to be in the kitchen bottling spaghetti!
"You can only make so much chutney," she replied.
How do you preserve your dignity? First, boil the surplus tomatoes.
I wrote that introduction a couple of weeks ago, when coronavirus was still a blurry pockmark on the edge of our collective vision. Depending what you read back then, we were going to be fine, or it was going to be end times. The health workers from Wuhan who reported pressure blisters from their face masks were terrifying; the five baboons who escaped from a medical research facility in Sydney were an opportunity to make jokes about Brad Pitt movies. There was no toilet paper in the supermarket but I could still watch The Walking Dead for fun - and you should have seen their post-apocalyptic faces when they found an abandoned house with a fully stocked pantry.
"Preserve" is a noun and a verb. An "a" and a "to". It is a word to wrap yourself in, both an intention and an outcome. It is a word for our times. What does it mean to you?
I don't know when I first became interested in the idea of making food that kept forever. Mum always bottled peaches, apricots and plums. She made relish, chutney and something she claimed was "tomato sauce". I don't remember helping her; this is not a skill I learned at her apron strings. Once, I think, we wore diving masks to peel baby onions but only for about two minutes before we got bored. I do remember lying on the wooden bunk beds my dad built, reading Trixie Belden detective stories. Trixie's mother was constantly canning fast-ripening tomatoes in the late summer humidity of the Hudson River Valley. I determined that canning was the same as bottling and didn't blame Trixie for electing to go for a swim and catch a diamond thief instead.
Still - those apricots. Packed like so many luscious, upturned bums; the bright gold of January when you weren't at school and the sun didn't set until well after tea. Bottled peaches definitely made winter move quicker. Do people still smother them with custard and have them for pudding or has the chia seed breakfast movement claimed them forever?
Back in February, Annabelle White, the cook with the apple cheeks and flamboyant personality, told me she had a shelf full of bottled nectarines in her kitchen that she thought might have been there for about 10 years - so pretty, she won't let anyone touch them.
On the weekends, she said, she has been known to drive to Ohope simply to buy "parliament pickle" from a stallholder; a neighbour called Kelly used to routinely drop by with apricot jam and tamarillo chutney.
"I get very dramatic when it comes to preserves. I put Kelly's marmalade in my mouth and I swear to God it's an out-of-body orgasmic experience."
Her neighbour is, she muses, perhaps "the Tom Cruise of the food world".
In fact, she decides, homemade preserves radiate joy: "It is a way of reconnecting with our grandparents, with earlier generations and feeling good about the fact we're not wasting things."
Every year, the New Zealand Society of Gastronomy hosts a themed symposium. In 2011, the theme was "preserve" and members convened in the old Wattie Homestead in Havelock North. Speakers included anthropologist and food historian Helen Leach, who reported the term "bottling" first appeared in local recipe books in the decade between 1910 and 1919 (mostly referencing tomatoes for soup and whole oranges).
In The Aristologist journal, Leach writes that preserving was considered a "patriotic duty" during the war years and its popularity appeared to peak in the 1950s when nearly 12 per cent of locally produced cookbooks had a section devoted to the art (this fell to 5 per cent in the 1960s, when sections entitled "freezing" began to appear).
Track the country's fortunes by its choice of jam ingredients. Leach's research shows that in the 1930s, when the Depression forced so many off their farms, blackberries and carrots were popular - one was cheap, the other grew in weedy abundance on abandoned soils. Once, the New Zealand Census used to track home vegetable production. In 1956, some 39.3 per cent of respondents grew no vege. By 1971, that figure had climbed to 48.9 per cent.
This month, as the country prepared for lockdown, garden centres reported record sales. I was too late to buy silverbeet seedlings but there were plenty of trays labelled "Chinese greens" and my bok choy is doing really well. Over summer, I had successfully grown cucumber. Sliced, salted, strained and packed into jars with onions. Submerged in a hot, nose-clearing broth of sugar, vinegar, mustard seeds and turmeric. I've been making Alison Holst's bread and butter pickles since 1989. They remind me of my first job and my first flat and - I can't really explain this - in an uncertain world, they make me feel safer. Sometimes, if you follow the instructions correctly, the thing you do today ensures a delicious tomorrow.
Every culture preserves, says Joe McClure. He's one of the two brothers behind Detroit-based McClure's Pickles, in New Zealand a few weeks ago, sharing tips on how to make garlic and dill pickles so good that Martha Stewart raves about them.
"From South Korea doing kimchi, to Eastern Europe doing fish, it starts from preserving that bountiful or bumper crop or harvest, so you could get through winter before the advent of refrigeration . . . and there are absolutely emotional and personal connections. With our pickles, I always say they are second to your grandmother's.
"Everybody pickles in their own way. What's so nice about food is that you can take any culture, even when people don't speak the same language, and you can share something with them through food and make a really personal connection."
Preserves are a kind of culinary history book. Archaeologists have reportedly found 1600-year-old still-liquid wine in Roman sarcophagi and 3000-year-old barrels of butter in Irish bogs. More recently, the food items conserved from the British Antarctic Expedition's 1889 winter on the ice included 30 bottles of Worcestershire sauce, chocolate-covered nodules of lime juice and a near-pristine fruit cake.
In 1913, preserving was so important to New Zealand that the Government passed a special act empowering itself to make cash advances for cool stores and to encourage the development of fruit-growing. In 1929, preserving was so popular that a glass jar factory in Penrose sold every single one of the 1,006,848 jars it had produced for the season. Among the more curious objects in the MTG Hawke's Bay collection? A squirrel fur cape that came from England by ship, packed inside a preserving jar. Airtight, compact and curiously relevant to my own life. When my postponed wedding finally goes ahead, the table decorations will include amber-coloured Agee Special preserving jars. They're hard to find here. They will be supplemented by American mason jars - transported by my new sister-in-law, who brought them in her suitcase from Utah last Christmas, packed with socks and underwear.
Modern-day preserving is part science, part romance. Once necessity, now a passcard to the past. This week, I contacted Josie Campbell from Auckland public relations company Great Things. She posts frequently on Twitter about the arts and entertainment industry, her pets - and the pickling projects she started in response to the realisation that she needed more non-work activities that, preferably, didn't require a screen.
"Gardening, baking bread, and last winter, I took up crochet and started forcing imperfect scarves on everyone. I first tried preserving about five years ago because I'd accidentally grown an overwhelming number of tomatoes and I thought it'd be cool to make my own relish. I didn't read the instructions properly and ended up with a scar from an exploding glass jar," she says.
"I started pickling semi-seriously two summers ago, after seeing gherkin seedlings for sale at Mitre 10. I grew heaps of gherkin cucumbers and started trying out different recipes and giving them away to friends. It all grew (excuse the pun) from there and I kept it up it because it's fun, relaxing and incredibly satisfying."
Campbell says some people escape by bingeing Netflix shows but that's just another screen and more noise.
"Pickling and preserving makes me focus completely on what I'm doing so the rest of the world gets blocked out for a while . . . I don't feel nostalgia for my childhood or anything like that but I think gardening and making things with stuff you've grown does make you feel connected to a simpler time and way of living and being closer to the land."
Right now, her cupboards are packed with gherkins, relish, chutney, her first attempt at piccalilli and a jar of radish and carrot pickles that might have been better a couple of weeks ago but are still safe to eat.
"The tomato and gherkin season is over now, so I planted lots of greens over the past month or so, which has ended up being a Godsend already, since I can't pop to the vege shop every couple of days for myself and my rabbit and guinea pigs.
"Yesterday for lunch, I had a couple of sandwiches made of bread I'd just baked, my own lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, and salami from the shop, and then topped them off with sliced gherkins from one of my jars. It was a little moment of awesome in my new lockdown life."