Writer Kim Kelly reflects on her love for her ex-Marine, steelworker, farmer grandfather—and his love for pickles.

By Kim Kelly
August 13, 2020
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Eric Anthony Johnson / Alamy Stock Photo

My late grandfather was never much for nicknames. When he was young, his hot, iron-clad world of tractor treads and back-breaking night shifts left little room to develop a tolerance for that kind of sentimental frivolity. Though he’d long since retired from the farm, the military, and the factory, he was not a man who changed habits. He was a hard man, but a sociable one. Those who got too familiar got the brush-off; those who crossed him get the horns. My Poppy was not the kind of man who you’d catch calling an acquaintance buddy, or hoss, or chief; I seldom heard him call my grandma “dear” or my mom anything but her name. But as for me, his favorite grandchild? He always called me Pickles.

The reason behind it was simple. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved eating pickles. And in my extremely white, rural world, devoid of any cultural influences beyond what we saw on The Simpsons, that meant precisely one thing: salty, tangy, crisp-yet-flaccid cucumbers, cut in quarters, entombed in vats of dill and vinegar, and served largely as an afterthought. The idea of there being other kinds of pickles out there never occurred to my small self, much the same way that I could not fathom the idea that not everyone’s dad hunted deer or watched NASCAR. (Dad also pickled various vegetables from his garden, but as an obnoxiously picky child, I’d have sooner cut off my left arm than eaten those.) At the time I got my nickname, I was specifically sworn to those Claussen kosher dill spears that came in a square plastic jug, nestled in proud, pale rows like first-day Army grunts. Any other kind—like those awful, nubbly dark green ones lurking on the dollar store shelves—were sniffed at suspiciously, and ultimately disregarded as subpar.

At family holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, my grandparents would always put out little plates of nibbles to distract the kids while Poppy hollered and sweated away in the kitchen proper. The regal “olive tray”—which was really just a pile of black olives, dill pickles, and the hated green Spanish olives on a cut-glass platter—began as public property, but gradually over the years became “the stuff Kim refuses to share.” Once my prepubescent self realized that the pickles I loved so much lived in the fridge and could be accessed on regular days, too, it was game over. Following that revelation, whenever I went to visit them, I clamored for pickles with the desperation of a drowning man.

For reasons that remain unclear and still feel unjust, my mom would allow me exactly two pickle spears per visit, as a treat. But as a man who nursed his own great appetites (for him, it was gin and pretzels), Poppy understood the importance of my quest to maximize those moments of crunchy, mouth-puckering bliss. My grandma told me she’d often catch him in the store examining the jars, rolling the jars around in his massive steelworker’s hands and trying to find the one that had the biggest, juiciest specimens. He doted on me as only a 6’4” barrel-chested former Marine can dote on a small blonde girl child, and if his Pickles wanted pickles, then only the best pickles would do.

Throughout my childhood, during college, and then up to my late twenties, he would keep a jar of Claussens—always spears, always classic kosher dill—in the fridge for when I came home to visit. It was a small, static comfort that anchored me as our family’s well-being and my own life seemed to grow more chaotic by the day. Whether or not mom was in the hospital again, or dad had gotten laid off unexpectedly, or the pressures of school and work were getting to me, I knew I could come back home to the woods, walk into their modest kitchen, and grab a few slices of salty sunshine. Poppy’s pickles were a visceral reminder of how much I was loved, even after I moved away to the big city to find myself and escape the darker currents of home. No matter how far I roamed, I knew that he and that jar would be there, waiting.

Now I am older, and can buy my own pickles. I usually keep a few jars in rotation, and my palate has expanded considerably. A decade in New York City will do that to you. But I’ve moved back to Philadelphia, and I get my pickles from the Amish sellers at Reading Terminal Market, and bring more home from my trips back to Brooklyn. The back half of my fridge is a perpetual riot of half sours and garlic dills and bright green news and fat deli pickles, fished from pungent barrels scattered across the five boroughs. The history of the humble pickle in the U.S. spans centuries, and is particularly concentrated in the city’s Lower East Side, where immigrant families once set up shop on bustling Essex Street to hawk their delicious wares. It’s why that stretch of street earned the name “Pickle Alley” in the 1930s, and why it’s still a piquant homeground for the city’s annual Pickle Day festival. Pickling foodstuffs made sense from a practical standpoint in a pre-refrigerated era, and for some, those hearty, one-handed peasant snacks also stirred up memories of now-faraway kitchens. No matter how far afield you travel, the heart and the stomach remain inextricably linked to home.

As I sat here writing this, munching a Guss’ half sour, my grandfather was lying in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room an hour away, struggling to breathe. His powerful body was immobile, his lungs spiderwebbed with cancer. His big heart was giving up. When I went to visit a few weeks ago, a few days before he passed, there was no jar waiting for me, and the cupboards were bare. By then, Poppy couldn’t drive anymore, and my grandma, who has spent the entirety of their 60-year marriage avoiding the kitchen, was sending my uncle out to buy just enough essentials to keep them both going. Poppy’s days of scouring grocery stores for hidden treasure were over. And there was no point in me bringing him a jar, either, because for all of his exertions, he didn’t even like pickles. He just loved his Pickles.