Zen and the Art of Pickle Making

Some people are process-oriented. You tend to be goal-oriented. But when one of your goals is to “be in the moment,” a good process helps.

The Zen Buddhists of Japan knew this, and from that realization came the tea ceremony. Focus on each step, making each action as good as it can be at that moment. Not perfect, there is no perfection. That is why one only “practices” the tea ceremony.

Pickle-making is a process. Given that one is preserving the food, each step has to be done right. Unlike cooking, where one might have three things going on the stove at once, ears attuned to the sizzle in on pan, nose attuned the smell in another and eyes watching the third, dividing one’s attention when canning is a prescription for failure. And given that failure in this case means exploding jars or a bad case of food poisoning, being fully present is kinda critical.

So you focus, and do each step with great intention, as well as attention. First, making sure you have all the basics: enough vinegar, salt and spices. Then on selecting the just-right vegetables at the market, and nice fresh herbs. Upon getting them home, cleaning the cukes and carrots and what-not well. Then on cleaning your jars and lids. Filling the canning pot, setting the jars in to get sterilized as the pot comes to a boil, and accepting that pot, watched or not, is going to take a long time to get fully heated.

By now, you are in the zone. Measuring the brining ingredients and getting them to boil. Trimming the vegetables and sizing them to fit the jars. Swigging water as you go, because a kitchen with a four-gallon pot of water coming to a boil is hot, folks. Ignoring the phone, although maybe taking a photo here and there, when you realize that your mis en place came out Instagram-ready without even trying.

And then, the water has decided to come to a boil, and you take the jars out to pack. And you do this mindfully, because, hello, they are hot. And with long kitchen mitts on, because once you did it bare-armed, and learned from that steam burn.

And you pack the jars. Spices, garlic, herbs and vegetables. Because you are absorbed in the moment, making them attractive just seems to happen. And you add the brine, with a funnel (so less of a mess, and easier to get the needed headspace with).

The fact that jars need headspace to properly process, just like you, flits across your mind and makes you smile. You move on to screwing the lids on, not too tight, not to loose, but just so. And back into the water bath the jars go, timing carefully watched, because this step really matters.

There is not much to do now, but wait. With the time set for the exact amount of recommended processing time, you clean the counters and wash the prep equipment. You recognize how little time it takes to actually wash up, something good to remember on evenings you feel lazy and don’t want to do the dinner dishes.

The timer dings, you pull the jars from the pot, again with tongs and long mitts and again carefully. You set the jars on a clean towel you’ve laid out to receive them. They look magnificent, and there is a surge of excitement, but you know you are still not done. It’s time to wait once more, for the satisfying “pop-click” indicating the vacuum seal has been achieved. And then you hear it, one lid after another, like a miniature chorus sounding off.

Satisfied, you go to shower, because you are a sweaty, stinky, briney mess yourself.

Four weeks later, when you serve these at a small get-together, there is a surge of pleasure in remembering how they got there. Yes, you tell your guests, you made them yourself. It’s just something you like to do.

And as with the tea ceremony, there is satisfaction in practicing the process for yourself, and joy in sharing the outcome.

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