Who better to tell the story of pickling things than Bryce Shivers and Lisa Eversman, the pickle-happy characters played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on the hit IFC sketch comedy show Portlandia.
So I sought and was granted permission* to use their iconic “We can pickle that,” characters to make a piece for this art show.
The truth was that in doing art about economy and sustainability and industry, all of which are in urban agriculture, I was concerned that the 31 Days show could risk ending up a little stuffy. And that’s not me at all. Hence the puns in much of my graphic lettering and the desire to inject some humor into all this.
In the “We can pickle that!” sketch, Shivers and Eversman rapidly progress from pickling excess vegetables to pickling most anything in sight. If I sent them their own copy of the print they’d pickle it and call it “conservation framing.”
In a pickle
But on to the real story — why is”pickling” in an art show about urban ag?
The whole point of city farming is to bring food and natural fiber products closer to consumers, most of whom live not in the countryside near big farms, but rather in cities. This presents a big opening for ag-preneurs to open food-related businesses right in town.
Food preservation and processing is a very real need in order to extend food shelf life and offer tasty alternatives. No form of preservation is as old as pickling. Well, at least if it’s done the traditional way, not by soaking produce in vinegar but instead by actually fermenting it.
Fermentation has become the fashion-forward flavor of the farm-to-fork restaurant and local food world in recent years. Fermentation is so hot (thanks in large part to fermenting guru Sandoor Katz) that the irrepressible enthusiasm for “pickling” is the spirit being lampooned in the Portlandia sketch.
Getting tangy wit it
But there’s one difference.
In the sketch, Armisen’s character Shivers proclaims that, “pickle juice tastes like garbage.” Totally funny, especially in reference to canned pickling. In that process, high heat essentially kills the food, leaving a sharp vinegar taste. Since canning destroys much of the nutritional value of food, commercial pickles offer little more to eaters than bulk fiber. Some might think they taste OK. But others like Shivers rightly compare canned pickles to, well, garbage. And while commercially canned pickles have a long shelf life, their greatest value as food lies not in everyday consumption but in emergency provisions.
I certainly don’t want to shoot down the canning industry, and there’s a place for foods that have been canned. But in the U.S., where we already suffer from so much impoverished and notional food, it’s important to bring a more critical eye to what we’re eating, for health and good taste alone.
Anaerobic fermentation on the other hand, which is often also (but mistakenly) called pickling, is a salt water brining process that preserves the food, imparts a sour but crisp and bright tangy taste while also creating a pro-biotic “culture” in the food that is said to enhance gut health and so boost immunity and overall health. Also fermented are things like yogurt, sour cream, creme fraiche, cheeses of all sorts, beer, kombucha, wine, mead, and even some meats.
As a home-based fermenter myself (my husband thinks my ferments are so good that I should launch my own local ferment biz) I’ve become as rabid as Shivers and Eversman about “pickling” (fermenting) anything in sight. Well, not my cat. Not yet.
— Lindsay Curren
*Permission given by Broadway Video for using the “we can pickle that!” as a source of inspiration for this piece.