How locally-sourced pickles made me a better dad.
When I was a kid, the closest thing I ate to a pickle came on a Play-Doh hamburger with a side of Play-Doh fries. Back then it was somehow easier to eat a ball of colored dough than the real thing. If a pickle got within twenty yards of a hamburger I was eating, I’d extract it from its cheesy confines and hold it up for all my friends to see. “Anyone want a pickle?” I’d say, and inevitably someone, usually Stanley Feldman, would reach out, take the soggy atrocity between his fingers, and swallow it whole. Stanley and I had a deal. He ate my pickles. I didn’t tell anyone about his psoriasis.
What I lacked in pickle love, I made up for in pickle curiosity. I hated them on hamburgers, but could somehow stomach them in more standard forms. Bread & Butter, Spicy Dill, Vlasic; these were the pickles of my people, a hodgepodge of 1980s-style brines tolerable enough for a Canadian boy of fifteen. I stomached these pickles with a sense of duty. A kind of sacrafice. I come from a long line of picklers, my ancestors surviving winters on good ol’ Canadian resourcefulness. My grandmother would have pickled dead gophers given half the chance.
Then I became a parent, and my relationship to pickles changed.
“Icy Ikle,” my two-year-old daughter said to me one day while pointing at the refrigerator. I had no idea what she meant. She isn’t a consistent pointer, the previous morning she’d pointed at a pillow and called it an airplane. I ran around the house grabbing anything that started with an “I”, which, at that point in her speech development, was essentially everything; Inky (binky), Iankee (blankee), Iicky Ouse (Mickey Mouse), etc.
To say my daughter is a picky eater is an understatement. The only thing she’s eaten consistently since she was old enough for solid food is toast. She is a toast connoisseur, holds a piece in her hand and studies it like a fine wine. The last time she consciously ate a vegetable she took a bite and threw it at me from across the room.
I can’t remember a meal in the past two years where I haven’t doubted my ability as a parent, the constant worry that my child was starving while the whole world looked on, despite the fact she’s the size of a small sumo wrestler. There’s stress built into a kid who doesn’t eat, my failure as a father encapsulated in the sadness of a half-eaten banana.
I’m a writer dad in Brooklyn, along with everyone else. But one of the great things about my overly-trendy borough and its ironic handlebar-mustached literati, is the access to amazing food. Not just restaurants and the latest Top Chef inspired prix fixe, but fresh farm-to-table ingredients by way of well-organized CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and farmers markets. My daughter and I were on the way to the park one day when she fell in love with a particular organic pickle stand. “Icy Ikle,” I would come to find out, meant spicy pickles.
The stand had barrels of pickles; jalapeño pickles, horseradish pickles, pickles dipped in fine wine and left to soak beside an important sounding river. The suspender’d host of the pickle stand reached into a bucket, broke a pickle neatly in two, and handed a piece to my daughter and me. The spice left me coughing into the air and waving my arms around like I was swatting mosquitos. My two-year-old daughter, the kid who didn’t eat anything, asked for more.
The last time my daughter had asked for seconds, she’d just swallowed a rock, so to me, this was progress. I handed a twenty to the man dressed like he was from 1893, collected a cool $2 in change, and made for home with a container of my daughter’s new favorite food.
That week, we ate spicy pickles for breakfast. Spicy pickles for lunch. When Doc McStuffins came on, we fed spicy pickles to the TV. And it was glorious. “More pickles, Dad,” she would say to me, and I would run to the fridge, collect one for each of us, and sit on the couch with her discussing the merits of whatever two-year-old thought was tumbling out of her head at that very moment.
Jesus, they were spicy. My eyes watered. Sweat rolled down my forehead. At one point, during a rousing rendition of “Let It Go” involving a complicated series of spins and acrobatic jumps from the couch, I inhaled a pepper that was stuck to the top of a half-eaten pickle I was using as a magic wand. My daughter asked me if she could get me some water. “I’m fine, honey,” I said. “Daddy ate a pepper.” She looked at me, laughed, and I took another bite. Because when you’re a dad wanting to be the best possible father to your child, you man up to the pickle, pretend it’s Play-Doh, and get back to the job at hand.