Some days, even when the world seems sweet, you need something sour to remind you what it means to be alive.
If you grew up in Palm Springs, you grew up in Jewish delis. The Gaiety. Buddy’s. Marvin’s. Nate’s. Sherman’s. There were upwards of a dozen of them valley-wide back in the 1970s and early ’80s. Only Sherman’s is still in business, the others are long gone, replaced by restaurants with ironic names, serving food that is best described as “fusion,” which is just a fancy way of saying no one could make a decision.
But these delis. You know them.
You’d walk in and there’d be a gruff man or woman standing there, slightly annoyed, sipping coffee and smoking a cigarette out of the same hand, holding a menu that looked like the Tables of the Law — but with more choices and arguably more sins. I’d be there with one of my two grandfathers, Cy or David. Poppa Cy would shake the host’s hand, pat him on the back, and then give him hell. This was something my grandfather did. He’d made a fortune in the furniture business in the Pacific Northwest and liked to come down to Palm Springs and tell other people how to do their business. We’d sit down and first thing, we’d get a plate of pickles and sauerkraut, and my grandfather would snap a pickle in half and we’d share it.
If the pickle bent like an old, damp twig, he’d stand up, wave the waitress over, tell her that he didn’t want any of these phony pickles and to bring him some fresh ones. Then he’d smile at me. It was a show. Cy was a contrarian. The pickles would never be fresh enough.
Of course, a fresh pickle is a misnomer. A fresh pickle is old: 10 days of fermentation and then a month or two in the refrigerator. The pickle crunches when you bite into it. It’s a pleasing sound. A remnant from its old cucumber days. But then the juice hits your tongue and your face crinkles, your eyes close, your cheeks pucker, your chin pulls back, your head shakes, your body literally prepares to flee … and then you take another bite, fork on some sauerkraut, order some lox, and your brain doesn’t know what to think. You should be sick. You’ve been delivered a clear message from your body’s warning mechanism, telling you that what you’re eating might very well be poisonous. And quite possibly fatal. This is your evolutionary advantage speaking. This is how you got from Olduvai Gorge to the corner of Tahquitz and Indian Canyon.
But natural selection never knew about pickling. Never knew that if you dropped a cucumber into a kosher salt brine, added garlic, black pepper, vinegar, and some amalgamation of secret spices that your family smuggled out of the Old Country (wherever that was), and that if the weather was just right — because there’s alchemy in this game — and if you waited just long enough, you’d be rewarded with a delicacy.
Sour food isn’t always about spices and fermentation. It’s also about history, about cultural identity. When I eat a bowl of borscht, I’m connecting to my other grandfather, David, the one who had to escape Ukraine in 1920. I’m sitting with him in Buddy’s and he’s pouring borscht directly into his mouth from the bowl, his lips pink from the beet juice, and he’s telling me about his mother, who in photos looks so dire and sad as to be the stuff of my childhood nightmares, because the borscht, it tastes like his memories, too.
Or maybe it’s a piece of lemon cake, moist, but no icing, and so sour it makes your eyes hurt, but it’s good, because it’s a living thing, earthy and gritty and dense, connected to something elemental. Food that reminds you that it wasn’t always about getting dressed up and being seen at a fancy restaurant. It was about eating what was available.
A pickle is now nothing but an afterthought. But for a time? It was about where you’d been. And where, ultimately, the country might go.
It’s good because it’s a living thing, earthy and gritty and dense, connected to something elemental. Food that reminds you that it wasn’t always about getting dressed up and being seen at a fancy restaurant. It was about eating what was available.
In the early part of the 20th century, when the country was facing an influx of immigrants, specifically from Eastern and Southern European countries and Mexico, a noted dietitian named Bertha M. Wood attempted to put forth some solutions to just how we, as Americans, might deal with these people and their strange customs and weird dietary habits. Her book Foods of the Foreign-Born in Relation to Health was based on the need to “Americanize” the food choices of foreigners so that they might better adjust to their new surroundings. Except, of course, the book wasn’t written for them, it was written about them, as if these new arrivals to the country had no conception of what it was they liked to eat. So Wood took it upon herself to make both quasi medical recommendations and recipe alterations with what ends up being total ignorance and quackery.
It’s also a ridiculously unscientific piece of work (“Polish children … have round, well-shaped heads, rosy cheeks, and strong bodies…”) that tends to put the most emphasis on something Wood, evidently, could not personally or objectively comprehend: namely, how anyone ate sour food. She went so far as to inform Jews that their love of pickles would render their “assimilation more difficult” and likely cause those suffering from nephritis to perish.
Ironically, it’s a fairly sour point of view, but one that occasioned the rise of the deli in popular culture: If people wanted their food, they had to prepare it themselves. So it’s sweet, really. A uniquely American tale of invention and innovation pushing past assumed norms and preconceived notions … which is to say, no one likes to be told what they can and can’t eat.
That’s not what being alive is about.
We make no connections to bland foods; they are the sustenance of the ill.
So when we want to truly feel alive, we reach into the past. Don’t like deli food? Find a bar with pickled eggs in a mason jar. Locate an Ethiopian restaurant and get some sourdough-risen injera. Walk into an authentic Chinese restaurant and order a pungent, eye-watering hot and sour soup. In all cases, a hit of sour will fix what ails you, provided you’re open to feeling like, for one brief moment, you just might die.