The last of ten guests walks through my door carrying soup and salad. Standing out against my black countertop are soft, buttery cornbread, crisp romaine lettuce, silky carrot puree, and shiny bell peppers sliced for dipping in creamy ranch dressing. It’s an impressive offering.
Casually, I add chips and salsa and olives. I want to plate my favorite appetizer, but it lacks the fresh liveliness of raw vegetables and the golden pigments of baked goods. It isn’t spicy or sour or salty or crunchy. It’s all those things at once. It is the pickles my mother made from scratch.
These are no ordinary pickles. Some are curried and fermented, deliciously turning cauliflower into tangy yellow bites. Others are roughly chopped chunks of cabbage, cucumbers, garlic, and shallots cooked in vinegar with herbs and spices. My mouth puckers thinking about them. Their fluorescent color renders their pre-pickled state unrecognizable. But it doesn’t matter what the vegetables used to be; they are so much better now.
I decide not to set out my pickles. I don’t want my mysterious, misshaped preserves to offend the proper snacks and sides already on the counter. Instead, I will slice up some kosher dills, just to be safe.
And besides, I don’t want the pressure of having to explain why my pickles look different. I can’t let the pickles speak for themselves either. If I do, my neighbors might discriminate before giving them a try.
If I had one hundred percent confidence in my pickles, I would place them on a crystal cake pedestal. Their turmeric-yellow profile would be exalted. Their acrid smell would waft proudly around the room, forcing partygoers to salivate against their will. Those pickles would sit there patiently waiting for the taste buds of refined consumers. In return, tasters would be invited to a secret society of women and very handsome men who are accustomed to such sharp accompaniments.
And oh, their flavor! Sampling one, I think of how my mouth aches when the air is made tangibly acerbic from boiling vinegar. My mother’s sarcasm in Arabic and my father’s stumbling English are not unlike those pickles. They cause me to cringe from their sourness and yet I love them dearly, no matter how difficult they are to swallow.
Their tartness also holds some of the sweetest of memories, like the ones I share with my most favorite women. We love to gather, and never without spicy preserves for the snacking. In fact, our reunions aren’t official until someone, usually my aunt or myself, pops the lid off a fresh jar of pickles. My mother doesn’t always make them from scratch. When she doesn’t, my cousin will be the first to go on a pickle run. And that’s only the beginning.
During our last visit, the four of us sat around a picnic blanket of marvelous delicacies. Our meza (appetizers) included sheep’s milk cheeses, warm pita bread, kettle chips, homemade hummus, tomatoes spiked with fresh mint leaves, cool yogurt and cucumber salad, and most important, a mélange of pickles: crunchy, mouthwatering, salty, spicy pickles.
Our love for Middle Eastern flavors goes way beyond pickles. But those dishes defy explanation and are of an acquired taste. This is not to say novices don’t fall in love with Iraqi cuisine, but they do so for different reasons. For the children of Iraqi immigrants, it’s deep. In every meal our mothers lovingly prepare is our collective memory of a place we’ve either never been to or haven’t seen in many years. Each dish forms a savory link that binds past, present, and future generations. Like the aroma rising with the steam, our souls rise when we feast, no matter where on the globe our bodies have been flung.
Warmed by our mutual understanding, we embraced each other’s stories in a flurry of gesticulations. Like the one I told about fellow shoppers who stared at my big hair in a small-town grocery store as if they could figure out where I was from by staring harder. Or how my mother zings us with the news of our Baptist countrymen and -women being murdered in the Fertile Crescent. Or how my cousin recounted defending herself after an enraged motorist called her names at a gas station. My aunt’s soft-spoken, nonconfrontational anecdotes rounded us out and held us together.
Nearing the end of our meal, the conversation diverged until we were viewing each other from the borders of our respective generations. How I wasn’t allowed to speak Arabic at home. How my aunt never taught her children Arabic. My cousin and I may have been cut off from our mothers’ first language, but the foods we savored became our code. Our shared love of shigar mahshee (stuffed zucchini), gamer (creamy milk-fat spread drizzled with date molasses), bamieh (stewed, garlicky okra), and Turshee-mahshee (Armenian cucumbers stuffed with herbs and—you guessed it—pickled) ties elders to their Westernized youth. What language alone can’t do to connect us, food can by appealing to all of our senses.
And laughter is never far behind as we fight over for the last few pickles. My cousin and I poke fun at my aunt when she trips over the wrong words in English. My mother laughs and laughs, finding humor in her own linguistic shortcomings. We know we are safe when we can laugh lovingly at our selves and each other. We were also proud, momentarily suspending any shame we may have felt for eating weird pickles or having funny accents.
Resolved, I set my evenly sliced, store-bought pickle spears out for my guests. I sample a wedge. It’s salty and crunchy, but it lacks originality. Oh well. Maybe one day I will showcase my mother’s pickles as an acceptable appetizer. But for now I save my tart treasures in the fridge for my mother, my aunt, and my cousin. If they can’t make the six-hour flight from California tonight or next week, I’ll eat them alone. As I do, I will dedicate all the pleasure I steal from those pickles to my sacred quorum.