Sour Pickles


My lips get all twitchy when I think about just how sour a sour pickle is. They always react like that.

I grew up close to a major thoroughfare that funneled traffic toward the center of the city. Buses stopped, on my side of an intersection, in front of Carbone’s store. This was the “go-to” place for pedestrians to buy newspapers, fresh fruit, magazines, candy bars, cherry Cokes, ice cream sundaes, and other treats. Bus riders bounced down the steps of the vehicle, and most filed directly into the store. The odor of diesel fumes hung around the outside of the shop, and the smells of fresh apples, oranges, and bananas greeted you the minute you stepped through the door.

Mr. Carbone lined up small sacks of peanuts in the shell, in a gleaming brass and copper peanut steamer, just outside the entrance to the shop. When the temperature inside the contraption rose to a certain point, pressurized steam carried the yeasty aroma of hot peanuts through a shiny brass whistle. Everyone within earshot of the screeching whistle knew that the peanuts were ready, and most of them bought a sack.

I really liked the store because of the sour pickles they sold from a huge barrel-shaped glass jar. The jar was located on a marble-topped counter in the rear of the store.

As soon as the heavy lid left its home on the pickle jar, everyone stepped back, away from the assault on their olfactory senses. Carbone’s sour pickles were no kin to the finger-sized pickles you buy at a supermarket. These babies were huge, fat, slippery, green bombs of whole, tartly embalmed cucumbers.

They stewed in pickle juice so tangy and sour that the clerk quit breathing as soon as he removed the lid. He’d ask, “Which one?” and then take a deep breath, and hold it, while he probed for your selection with long-handled tongs. He’d carefully raise my emerald beauty out of the jar, wrap it in waxed paper, and hand it to me. I’d thank him and, salivating nearly beyond control, pay for my purchase at the register by the front door.

Giant, old-fashioned, sour pickles magically lift your spirits, even if you’re feeling glum, sad, bereft, or just plain down in the dumps. When you bite down on one of these khaki-colored torpedoes, and the pickle-liquor squirts halfway down your throat, a bright flash of sour pickle reality suddenly imbues you with enlightenment, and the whole world comes into perspective.

I find it difficult to speak after I chomp the first few bites of a sour pickle. I don’t know why, but the pickle juice always starts a revolt in my mouth between my sense of taste and smell. It’s difficult to explain, but I can taste the smell of the pickle. The sourness of the fermented pickling liquid makes the inside of my jowls tingle. My lips get tight and tingly. They twist and contort into a great, tightly wound pucker. That’s a genuine conversation stopper. I’m always better off alone when I eat a sour pickle.

A sour pickle is a cooling treat during the heat of the summer. In the middle of winter, strangely, eating a sour pickle has a warming effect. A person can satisfy serious hunger pangs with a sour pickle and not yearn for food for at least four or five hours.

Sometimes, I laugh at how idiotic I must look when I eat a sour pickle. I wonder how anyone can possibly enjoy and savor anything so sour, not only once, but time after time. Sour pickle aficionados spend many years of their lives anxiously awaiting and preparing for the shock of their “first bite,” over and over again.

Carbone’s store is no longer there. I make my own sour pickles now, in a large earthenware crock, out back in the shed. I’m headed there now—for a pickle hit.

Note: The above is a short story taken from my book Sour Pickles, ANvils, and Union Suits.


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