Cucumbers: instruments of childhood memories.

Mid July in Nova Scotia. My grandmother’s century and a bit more home, painted white wooden siding freshly cleaned by rain from the day before. It might reach 85 at it’s hottest in summer there. Years later while I am old and cantankerous, living in Florida I’ll mock myself for thinking it was hot. For now, for us in that moment and time it was pretty warm.

My grandmother’s kitchen was the focal point for her entire house. Sure, you stepped into a front porch so you could take your coat or your shoes (in this case, usually sandals, flip flops, or just wipe your bare feet) off there. The front porch later held her deep freezer and a tiny wooden stove for winter–but nobody spent any time there.  It was too small and that’s not the function of a porch.

The first room people came to at my Grandmother’s house was the kitchen. People didn’t often bother going any further. She had her rocking chair set up on the far wall from the door, facing the larger, brightly lit window that let her watch the front door and her walkway to it. To the left was a small table and two or three chairs for company to seat themselves by that window. To the right was a long cabinet that reached all the way through the kitchen and dining room, broken only by the oven who seemed like a silent indicator of the line between where kitchen ended and dining room began. Her fridge was at the furthest wall, bright yellow as her oven.

The dining room had a window that mirrored the one in the kitchen that looked out over the door and walkway. These were perfectly set up for the lazy sort of breezes July carried. The morning and the night time were the best times–the coolest, sweetest breeze carrying either the morning’s or evening’s fresh cut grass, alfalfa and flowers would wiggle its way through the screens and billow flower bedecked curtains.

My grandmother’s kitchen was the soul of her house. People didn’t come and sit in the living room when they visited. They didn’t often settle in her other porch–her sun porch–to relax and talk, play card games or gossip. They came and they settled like little chirping birds in her kitchen and she would make the meals that would remain with me for the rest of my life. Hodge-podge, fresh baby carrots, peas, potatoes and beans from her own garden, roasts and chickens and the best gravy you’ve ever tasted and who cares if it was fattening or how many calories or how much salt was in it or if it was organic or not? It was summer time and you’d been out all day in the sun doing whatever or at work and even though the day was hot there was nothing like Grandma’s dinner.

Everyone walked away with their bellies full, grinning lazily with the after effects of eating just a bit too much but nobody really said anything or minded–they ate too much, too.

But there’s are two specific dishes my grandmother made that will forever be hers in my head. It’ll always make me remember and picture summer’s in her kitchen.

It’s the simplest thing on the planet to make, and the recipe (if you could call it that) can be adapted, changed, fiddled with and spiced up how anyone saw fit.

She’d take a one or two cucumbers grown from her very own garden and wash them. She peeled them, but that I suspect was a personal choice and then begin to slice them moderately even and thin. Then she’d slice a sweet or yellow onion very thinly, just enough to flavor the cucumber. When she was finished, she’d take the cucumber slices, onions, sprinkle them with salt and place them in a wide bowl and put a saucer or small plate on top of them. On the plate covering the cucumbers and onions she’d put the heaviest cans or jars she had and let that sit for about an hour.

When the hour had passed, she’d drain the water from the cucumbers into the sink and give them a quick rinse to remove the salt. This was the base for her side-dish. From there, she might pour heavy cream, salt and pepper and call it done. Or she’d mix white vinegar with sugar in a bowl. There was never any measurement, she’d just say, “Well, until it tastes right.” Then she’d put the cucumbers in either the cream or vinegar mix and let them sit from morning to evening in the fridge. Supper time came around and she’d put the big bowl of cucumbers on the table.

If the bowl lasted past dinner it was always a miracle.

I had almost forgotten about this side-dish. For the longest time, there were no reminders of home in my kitchen.  When I visited my mother and father in Alberta a while back, my mother made this dish four or five times when I was there–both the creamed and vinegar version. Watching her make it was like watching my childhood unfold again; she is her mothers daughter in the way her hands hold the knife to cut the cucumbers. In her, “Well, let me just taste it to see if it’s right,” for checking if she put the correct amount of sugar to vinegar in or not.  The cucumbers might have been store-bought but they came out as perfect as any memory I have of my grandmother’s version.

When I came home to Shawn one of the first things I did that week when we went grocery shopping was to grab some cucumbers and vinegar. Now, personally, I like to play around with it. I used red wine vinegar and red onions. I put a liberal sprinkle of dried dill into the mix. But it’s the same to me because at the core it’s like…tasting a memory. It’s sweet, a little tart, nostalgic.

It’s odd what our brains choose to associate with a memory. And I want to know–what foods trigger a happy memory for you?