Why Pickling Can’t Solve Everything

or, How to Bait a Trap for Yourself
by Eli Brown

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In Cinnamon and Gunpowder, the narrator, chef Owen Wedgwood, is kidnapped by a pirate and forced to cook for her on her ship. Despite the paucity of ingredients, his meals must delight her or she’ll kill him. Even in early drafts, I was tickled by this tension. Soon, though, I saw that in trying to hook the reader, I had set a trap for myself. What had been an interesting challenge for one of my characters had now become a daily challenge for me. How to make pie crust with half-melted lard? How to make bread without clean water or yeast? What could a dessert taste like when the only sweet handy is gritty honey? If I cheated and made the puzzle easy to solve, one of the chief dramatic pillars of the novel would crumble. I was in for a struggle.

Classic painters were sometimes obliged to grind their own pigments—it was the only way to guarantee quality. Likewise, the best cooks in the world take a certain geeky pride in sourcing their ingredients. Living on an urban mini-farm means that when I get hungry I can walk out back and gather the freshest kale, herbs, and tomatoes on the planet; I can nudge the hens gently aside and retrieve their still-warm eggs. This is precisely what my character, Owen Wedgwood, could not do. He was stranded in the crappiest kitchen he had ever seen, with little but salted herring and weevil-specked flour.

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I have some considerable experience with cooking under constraints. I have, at different times of my life, been vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, and grain-free, sometimes all at once. Sometimes these were voluntary strictures, sometimes due to living with someone with food allergies. I have been willing to go without many kinds of foods, but I have never been willing to go without a good meal. Sometimes I credit veganism to teaching me how to cook, because it forced me to really interrogate the entire process of cooking. It may sound like a zen koan: What is a meat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free lasagna? I have made several, perfected them in fact, and while they are unconventional, they are nevertheless delicious.

One solution to the food problem presented in Cinnamon and Gunpowder is fermentation. I am one of the growing legion of fermenters led by respected elders such as Sandor Katz, who believe that if it’s edible, you can pickle it. A pirate in the 1800s would have been wise to ferment just about everything she intended to eat. Not only does fermentation preserve food for a long journey, it also provides additional nutrients, healthy probiotic organisms, and practically guarantees safety from food poisoning.

As pickle lovers know, a well-made kimchi can practically be a meal unto itself, and deeply satisfying. Compared to hardtack—the rock-hard lumps of flour most sailors relied on for calories—a pickled carrot or green bean would have been heavenly. In fact, many of the condiments we still rely on to make food palatable were traditionally fermented: mustard, vinegar, pickles, yogurt, beer, wine, bread, coffee, alcohol, cheese, crème fraîche, buttermilk, miso, sauerkraut, olives, chocolate, salami, ketchup, capers… in fact it’s hard to think of a food that hasn’t been fermented to good effect somewhere in the world.

But watching how fermented food is made is not for the squeamish. Case in point: I made a friend a batch of homemade yogurt. (Yogurt is fermented overnight in warm, moist environs—basically the opposite of a refrigerator.) I had flavored it with honey and lavender, and she described a bright range of flavors that cascaded like champagne across her tongue. When I told her I was letting my own batch ferment a little longer, since I liked it more sour, her face wrinkled: “You mean you’re just letting it rot in its own filth?”

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So, while I believe a well-fed pirate would eat a diet high in fermented foods, I was advised by my wise editor Courtney Hodell to tone down the funky stuff. She was right, of course, and given how many fermented foods remain in the book (sauerkraut, miso, cider, sourdough, pickled hominy, etc.) you can imagine what a funk-fest it would have been if not for her intervention.

Wedgwood would have balked at pickling everything too; he was used to having fresh ingredients at hand. Therefore, pickles play only a supportive role in his presentations. I was stuck. There would be no silver bullet, no easy solution. For Wedgwood, and for me, every bite would be hard won.

The solutions presented themselves begrudgingly. I was taking a break from writing by swimming in a lake, challenging myself to dive as deeply into the dark waters as I could, marveling at how quickly the temperature turned chilly, when it hit me: Wedgwood could use the depths of the ocean to chill his pie dough! All it would take would be a sealed jar and some weighted rope! These are the moments, rare and ecstatic, that keep writers from giving up in frustration; these moments feel like coming up from mud into the warmth and light to shake the water from your face and howl with triumph… But the pie would feed the pirate queen only once. The next week would require another stroke of brilliance. Soon the euphoria wears off and it’s back to the hand-wringing.

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For me, Wedgwood’s cooking dilemma felt personal and almost ritualistically important, despite the other concerns that plagued him throughout the story. I have been very lucky in my life to have access not only to fresh ingredients, but also to various cultures which expanded my own palate immeasurably. But, every day, I returned to the rocking ship and the rat-infested galley of the novel to try to make something delicious from scraps. It’s a decent analogy for the act of writing itself. I realized that the trap I found myself in was particularly insidious because it had been made to my own dimensions. In making trouble for my character I had established a real threat for myself. If Wedge failed, he died. If I failed, the book wouldn’t work. Two years down the drain. Not quite a death sentence but still plenty to sweat about.

Near the end of the Cinnamon and Gunpowder, Wedgwood achieves a nearly religious ecstatic state while cooking. I believe this revelation is a direct result of my own daily struggle with his puzzle, a culmination of the several eureka moments I enjoyed on the journey. Of course, there are other compelling threads of the story, overcoming willful innocence, falling in love, confronting corporate colonialism, to name a few. In fact, it could be said that the cooking puzzle is practically a MacGuffin—just something to get the real story rolling. It was what hooked me, though. It brought me back to the writing desk every day. I opened the trap, crawled in, then struggled to get out. As far as I can tell, it’s how books are made.
Eli Brown lives on an experimental urban farm in Alameda, California. His writing has appeared in The Cortland Review and Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader. His first novel, The Great Days, won the Fabri Literary Prize.