Road to joy

I’ve had a five-gallon compound bucket full of herring in the basement for almost a year now, courtesy of our friends Geri and Emory. They got the fish from our neighbor Bob, who fished them out of the sea last winter with his own two hands. The fish are cleaned, headless, and packed in salt, waiting patiently to be pickled.

Geri and Emory are expert herring picklers. They spent many years living in Denmark, where pickling fish is a national pastime, and they brought their herring habit home with them. I, however, am a rank amateur, so I looked around for reputable sources to guide me through the process.

Plenty of pickled herring recipes are out there on the Internet, and my local library came through with Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Pickling.

The Joy of Pickling?

I probably get more pleasure out of food than most people do, but I’ve never uttered “joy” and “pickling” in the same breath.

I blame Irma Rombauer for the “Joy of” genre. Her 1931 Joy of Cooking was the first, and there have been hundreds since. Specifically, there have been 477, according to the Library of Congress, and the list of things book buyers are presumed to take joy in is mind-boggling. It runs the culinary and religious gamut, but extends to just about every hobby, discipline, and character trait.

If you don’t take Joy in Cooking, how about Birding, or Demography, or First-year Piano? There are Cats, which are to be expected, but also Frogs and Cockatiels. There is Hockey, there is Rugby, there is Snorkeling. Every kind of sewing project, from Split Ring Tatting to Machine Embroidery, appears on the list.

If you can’t find joy in the mundane – Geraniums or Jell-O Molds, say – perhaps you can find it in Being a Woman, Being a Vegetarian, or Being a Eucharistic Minister.

Maybe Ernie J. Zelinski’s 1998 magnum opus, The Joy of Thinking Big: Becoming a genius in no time flat, is for you. No? Then there must be joy in Negative Thinking, Failure, Funerals, or Being Wrong. Or Lent. Or maybe Liberace.

Why must we find joy in a pursuit in order to deem it worthwhile? I understand why The Drudgery of Cooking didn’t make Rombauer’s short list, but isn’t there something between that and joy? Can’t something be merely satisfying? Amusing? Gratifying?

In a world where joy is sometimes hard to come by, the “Joy of” list isn’t going to be much help. I’ll give you Sex, but Vegan Baking?

Granted, I haven’t done much vegan baking, but I pickled once, and there was no joy to be had. The incident involved a crop of cucumbers harvested from the rooftop garden we had in Manhattan.

We thought we were pretty clever. Our building had a skylight with a grate over it, and we planted the cucumbers in whiskey barrels we put right next to the light. When the vines started coming up, we trained them to grow across the grate. The system worked beautifully, but we had to be vigilant about making sure the cucumbers didn’t lodge in the holes in the grate, which were about an inch square. If they did, they’d grow and wedge themselves in, like someone who gets fat and can’t get his wedding ring off.

We lost a few to the grate, but still had a decent harvest. I set out to make dill pickles, using a recipe someone had given me, and swore by.

I followed the steps to the letter, but then got to an instruction I had somehow missed in my first reading. “Store the pickles in a cool place for three weeks.” An ideal cool place, it went on to specify, would have a temperature within a degree or two of 60.

This was Manhattan in August. There was no cool place. The refrigerator was too cold. The basement, too warm (not to mention public). If I air conditioned the apartment down to 60 for the requisite three weeks, these would be the most expensive pickles in the history of mankind.

It took me a full hour to realize that our wine cooler – the cabinet-size kind that holds about twenty bottles – was pretty close to the right temperature. Out came the Veuve Clicquot, in went the pickles.

For three weeks, I faithfully skimmed the scum off the brine, and did several other things which the recipe required but the memory of which I have clearly repressed. When all was said and done, we had two gallons of some of the soggiest, saltiest pickles I’d ever tasted.

I’m hoping to do better with the herring. They’ve been soaking for almost 24 hours, in a couple changes of water, and I’m going to tackle them today. I’m not expecting joy, but pickled herring is almost as good.

8 people are having a conversation about “Road to joy

  1. I never found the joy in cats or vegetarianism. Maybe I needed to read the books.

    I love the idea of pickling but have been put off trying it because our house already smells bad enough without a briny, vinegary topnote. And my fear that I will take too many shortcuts in the processing and end up with kilner jars of festering botulism. Maybe that’s only a problem with canning green beans, not pickling.

    I’m hiding behind your skirt a bit now and waiting to see how you get on. But if the herring (is it the same as Lutefisk?) turn out well, I will giving bread & butter pickles a try this summer. When I can open the windows.

  2. In the early stages of my opus, “The Joy of Sitting on Your Butt Reading Blogs”. The research will be exhaustive.

  3. No, Jen, lutefisk is salt fish soaked in a lye solution and then cooked. This process is only carried out by Scandivanians, God only knows why they do it. Lutefisk is one of the worst foods ever conceived by mankind. I grew up in a Scandivanian household and I know whereof I speak. If anyone ever invites you over for a Christmas Eve lutefisk feast, be prepared to make your excuses.
    Pickled herring, on the other hand–ah!

  4. beachnitpicker says:

    Geez! Just noted that I lost my identity when I changed computers. Also that I misspelled “Scandinavian.” Twice!

  5. Jen — I think that briny smell actually cancels out some of the more — ahem — organic smells. And, as for lutefisk, I second BNP’s recommendation — run away!

    Kate — So you didn’t get the pickle gene, eh? I’d eat my shoes, if you pickled them.

    Paula — I certainly wish you joy in that enterprise.

    Susan — Now *there’s* a “Joy of” I can get behind.

    BNP — We knew what you meant. And thanks for a definitive answer on lutefisk!

  6. Tamar & anon – I think I was confusing lutefisk and a London specialty called ‘rollmops’. I have heard tell the horrors of lutefisk, mostly by Garrison Keillor in his Lake Woebegon stories.

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