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This Excessive Use of Pickled Foods

By Leora Spitzer | https://www.khoreomag.com/author/leora-spitzer/ | Leora Spitzer
Edited by Aleksandra Hill || Narrated by Emily Lawrence || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
Anti-Semitic epigraph
3650 words

In the Jewish sections of our large cities there are storekeepers whose only goods are pickles. They have cabbages pickled whole, shredded, or chopped and rolled in leaves; peppers pickled; also string beans; cucumbers, sour, half sour, and salted; beets; and many kinds of meat and fish. This excessive use of pickled foods destroys the taste for milder flavors, causes irritation, and renders assimilation more difficult. 

—Bertha M. Wood, Foods of the Foreign-Born in Relation to Health, 1922

Bex gave up attempting to present herself as anything but a clueless newbie from a backwater planet just six seconds after stepping into the food court in the central concourse of Konkarken Station. Even with the translation glasses that let her read signs, she was entirely lost. For example, “Sunshine Glow Swish” might have been a literal translation of the name of whatever was served in the large iridescent cups at least half the beings in the concourse clutched the way humans held coffee mugs, but nothing about that name helped Bex know what was actually being served, let alone what effect it would have on her human metabolism. 

The rabbis back home had been arguing over the permissibility of various kinds of alien cuisine under the laws of kashrut for decades now. Bex wasn’t sure that she was going to continue keeping kosher long term—what was the point of attending the premier intergalactic university if she wasn’t going to try new things and explore other cultures?—but, still shaky from her long travel, she wasn’t ready to take the plunge on, say, whatever that tentacled sphere was, even though humans were on the helpfully posted list of species who could safely consume it.

Her stomach growled inconsiderately, encouraging her to speed up her quest. Then, like the answer to a prayer, there it was: In a Pickle, with an English sign and a display of mostly familiar vegetables. 

“Oh, I recognize that face,” a voice said from behind the counter. Bex looked up to see an older human with streaks of purple in their curly silver hair wearing an apron and smiling at her. “Don’t tell me, just off the ship, eh? New university student?”

Bex nodded after each question. 

“Welcome! What can I get for you?”

Bex looked again at the display. “Somehow, I didn’t expect to travel halfway across the known universe and still find pickles, but I am definitely not complaining,” she said.

“Pickles are classic for a reason—the same reason people invented them in the first place,” the shopkeeper said. “Preservation. Granted, there are higher-tech solutions now, but freezers consume too much energy to maintain on spaceflight, and most other options end up messing with the taste or, worse, the texture. Brining food, on the other hand, is long-lasting and delicious. Plus, it turns out humans require a much higher salt intake than most other species, so humans out here regularly have sodium deficiencies.” They shrugged. “Go figure. You’ll discover your new favorite alien cuisine soon enough, but it’s nice to have a link to home, all the same.” 

“That makes sense,” Bex said. “May I have one of those half-sour cucumber pickles, please?”

“Of course.” The shopkeeper moved to retrieve the pickle while Bex tapped her bracelet against the register. Though she knew there was no reason for the technology not to work, she was still relieved to be met with the ding and purple flash of a successful payment. The shopkeeper grinned and passed over a large, bumpy pickle. Bex bit down immediately. It gave a satisfying crunch, flooding her mouth with salt and dill, and suddenly she was—

sitting on the couch in her childhood home, watching the Hanukkah candles flickering in the window, licking pickle juice off her fingers as Mama (younger than she’d ever seen her) says, “You don’t think Rebecca is too old-fashioned, then?” and she hears herself answer, “It hasn’t gone out of fashion for about five thousand years, why would that change now?” but a weird squirming in her torso disturbs her and she looks down at her pregnant stomach with awe and rising fear and—

 the riotous colors and sounds of the alien concourse pounded at her senses, the pickle half-finished in her hand.The shopkeeper watched her curiously.

“All good?” they asked.

“Delicious,” she assured them. “Just… brought back some memories, I guess.” 

They grinned. “Strong flavors can do that,” they agreed. “Good luck with your classes!” 

“Thanks.” Bex nodded to them again and followed the signs back towards the dormitories. 

Taste did have a strong connection with memory, she reflected, looking at the remainder of the napkin-wrapped pickle. But—that hadn’t been her memory. It had been her mom’s. 

• • •

Her new roommate was a Sinsinminite, a quadrupedal species smaller than humans and known for a strong cultural tradition of cybernetics. Quadeep (second syllable said at a higher pitch) had already begun to unpack on zer side of the room, easily identifiable by the bowl-shaped bed.

“Is this an acceptable temperature for you?” ze asked. Two of zer mechanical limbs twisted a small piece of wire into Sinsinminite glyphs and then straight again as ze spoke. “This is the optimal temperature for the appropriate functioning of my body. My research says this is on the lower end of the range of human comfort levels, but I am aware there is variance in individual preferences, and I do not want to begin our acquaintanceship with discord.”

“This is fine,” Bex assured them. Apparently, some roommate issues were universal. 

“That means acceptable, yes? You are not using the homonym requiring me to produce financial restitution for a wrong?” 

“It is acceptable,” Bex agreed. “No financial restitution expected or necessary. Will you tell me about the translation matrix you are using?”

Quadeep beeped, something Bex’s own research had told her indicated excitement. It turned out that ze, like Bex, was here to study xenolinguistics, though zer focus was on improving translation technology, while Bex was more interested in comparative childhood language development. Her previous anxiety began to recede. She had already successfully located both food and a place to sleep, and even navigated a delicate social situation with a member of a species she had never encountered before. She could not avoid being from a backwater planet, but surely she would not be a clueless newbie forever. Perhaps this opportunity would be everything she had hoped for, after all.

• • •

The following afternoon found Bex back at the pickle counter, exhausted, drained, and discouraged after the first day of classes. She had gotten lost between every single class, once badly enough to be embarrassingly late to the lecture, of which she proceeded to understand approximately fifteen percent. The blue-tinged lighting was giving her a headache, and she desperately wanted fresh air. Why had she thought it would be a good idea to travel parsecs away from anything familiar? Why had she been so sure this would be the right place for her out of a whole galaxy of options? Her mom had encouraged her to go to Bellona University on Mars, which had the best of the human-run xenolinguistics programs, and her ima kept handing her brochures for every school within the Sol and Alpha Centauri systems with a Jewish population larger than a minyan, but no, for reasons that seemed entirely impenetrable to Bex right then, she had had her heart set on Konkarken Station University, which, to her mothers’ poorly stifled consternation, had hardly any other humans, let alone any other Jews. 

It was with great relief and no small amount of homesickness that Bex purchased pickled cabbage from the sympathetic shopkeeper. Desperate for some quiet after the overwhelming day, she returned to her dorm to eat it alone. The black pepper tickled her throat as she swallowed the leaves, and—

under the blazing yellow sun, her sweat-soaked, ritually fringed undershirt clings to her itchy skin, and the fresh, sharp sting of the cabbage gives a satisfying jolt of energy even as she feels an accompanying sting of guilt for spending money on a snack for herself instead of turning it over to Mameh to provide for the whole family, her head aching with the tumult of nearby horses whinnying and shopkeepers yelling in Yiddish and Italian, and she licks her chapped lips and reluctantly turns towards home, where—

Quadeep entered the room, emitting the high-pitched squeak that was the Sinsinminite equivalent of whimpering. Ze crossed the room to hoist zerself into the circular bed, curled zerself into a ball, and squeaked some more. It reminded Bex of a horse’s panicked whinny. She had never been close enough to a horse to touch, had never seen a horse outside of a zoo or parade, but suddenly her memory was full of the strong scent and sound of a street full of horse-drawn wagons, hooves clopping against the cobblestone in a city that had not existed, not like that, for centuries. Old New York was more than half underwater these days. Bex had gone on a submarine tour with her bat mitzvah class. 

“Oh! My apologies for the noise. I did not process your presence,” Quadeep said. “I am embarrassed. Today has simply been…”

“Totally farkakteh?” Bex offered. “Yeah, for me too.” 

“I am sorry, my translator is not familiar with that word.”

Bex blinked, replaying her comment. “Farkakteh? It’s Yiddish. It means ‘entirely terrible, not at all the way it ought to be.’” 

“Fa-kak-tuh,” Quadeep repeated, turning the unfamiliar syllables over in zer mouth. “I like it. Very expressive. Yes, today has been farkakteh.” Behind the translation matrix, Bex could hear Quadeep saying the Yiddish word. 

“I got lost so many times,” Bex confided. 

Quadeep shifted to look at her, zer head upside-down. “Understandable! The architectural design is not intuitive.” Ze squeaked. “In one of my lectures, the only seat appropriate for a quadruped was in the front row, thus requiring me to sit directly in the instructor’s line of sight, and he scolded me for fidgeting. In the following lecture, the only quadruped seats were at the rear, and I could not hear sufficiently well.” 

“Ugh, so much for all their advertising about ‘providing an immersive, accommodating learning environment for beings of all species.’ Meanwhile, two different beings asked me if it was true that human reproductive cycles involve losing a gallon of blood every month.” 

“Questions from strangers regarding the mechanisms of reproduction are considered rude in more than fifty percent of known species. They ought to know better.” Quadeep twitched one of zer cybernetic arms towards Bex, then retracted it. 

“Go ahead, ask,” Bex said, amused and resigned. 

“Do they?” 

“No! It isn’t usually much more than a few ounces, and only for some of the adult population. These days, most people get an implant that stops the monthly flow until they are ready to reproduce.” 

“Interesting,” Quadeep said, politely horrified. 

They sat together in mutual exhaustion and discouragement. Bex thought of the ache in her predecessor’s muscles, how hard he’d been working to help support his family after their long journey across the ocean to a strange new land. She wondered what he’d think to see her here, after her own long journey, to a place even stranger. He would be excited for her, she decided. Glad that she did not need to exhaust her body to provide her family with food. She thought of the parts of the lectures she had understood, about cognitive capacity at birth across species, and let out a deep breath. 

“Tomorrow will be better,” she said. 

“We will make it so,” Quadeep agreed. 

• • •

It was more than a week before Bex could make it back to the pickle stand. The shopkeeper gave her a gentle smile. “Busy with classes?” they asked.

Bex groaned. “So busy. Everything’s been totally meshuganah, but I couldn’t bear to eat more of the prepackaged stuff in the campus commissary.” 

“Hmm. How do you feel about capers?” the shopkeeper asked.

“Positively!” 

“I can sell you a jar of capers, so you can add a few to give some more flavor to your regular meals, if you’d like. And that will help keep your sodium levels up to a healthy level, too.” 

“That would be amazing,” Bex said, brightening. 

The shopkeeper rang her up for a small, tightly-sealed jar of capers and a large half-sour cucumber pickle for the walk back to her dorm. As she crunched the pickle, she caught glimpses of a family picnic on the beach, a barbecue in an unfamiliar backyard, a cold wind sweeping through a rickety shtiebel in the brief lunch break before returning to Talmud study, and a comically oversized pastrami sandwich at a deli. She began mentally composing the letter she would send to her moms about her studies. They were proud of her, but neither had been overjoyed at her decision to travel parsecs away from any of their family, farther even than could be reached by their extensive network of friends, friends-of-friends, former colleagues, and old synagogue members that stretched throughout most of human-dominated space. They could use the assurance that she was settling in, learning lots, and—here she licked the last bit of pickle juice off her wrist—in no danger of forgetting where (or whom) she had come from. 

• • •

The capers were a welcome addition to her diet; the small bursts of flavor vastly improved the commissary’s bland offerings. Eating them gave her a sense of comfort and home, but never accompanied with any clear visions of the past. It was like trying to remember a preschool classmate or a distant cousin—she knew the memories were there, could feel the shape of them, but not more than that.

At least, not until she tried them on top of a chewy Faddian bread with some protein spread and thin slices of a smoked Sinsinminite vegetable Quadeep had urged her to try. It was not actually like a classic lox and cream cheese at all, but it was just similar enough for her to be—

 sitting on a low stool, back aching, gripping the paper plate holding half a bagel with thick cream cheese, several pieces of lox, and a scattering of capers, realizing suddenly that there is no need to brush the capers off before offering a bite to Debbie as she’s done for the last four decades because Debbie is no longer here to complain about the strong taste, so she looks up to see her children telling stories to the rabbi while the grandkids play in the other room, and someone begins passing out siddurim for the upcoming service, but all she can do is sit with a bite of bagel in her too-dry mouth and wish that she still had a reason to avoid capers—

and she was back in the dining area, eyes filling with tears. 

“Are you healthy?” Quadeep asked, alarmed. “The vegetable should not have caused you harm! My deepest apologies if I erred in my research!” 

“No, no, I’m fine,” Bex said, and managed a smile. “No financial restitution needed or expected. Humans exude saline water from our eyes when we experience strong emotions, not necessarily negative ones.”

“Ah, thank you for clarifying.” It was a phrase they all heard and said several times a day whenever someone offered a cultural or biological lesson. Quadeep twisted the ever-present wire ze kept as a fidget, obviously still concerned. “May I ask—would it be acceptable to inquire—what prompted the strong emotion?”

“It’s acceptable to ask,” she said, stalling. Even if she were somehow able to explain the existence of the memories, where would she begin explaining the content thereof to her alien friend? Where did one start to explain shiva to someone with so little sense of what normal human life looked like that a week of formalized grieving would be indistinguishable from regular routine? How could she explain her own strong emotions: the second-hand grief for a woman she had never met, yes, but also, now that she was analyzing her feelings, a complicated guilt-tinged envy of the widower who at least had his whole community rallying around him, all present to care for him and ensure that despite his great loss, he was not alone, while she had not had a real conversation without all-too-fallible translation software in months, unless one counted the brief exchanges with the pickle seller?

“Do you require emotional support?” Quadeep asked, zer wire now bent into a rough profile of a human face. 

Bex looked at her friend and thought again of the shiva house. There was nothing the visitors could say to lessen the avel’s grief, but simply being there to share it was enough. Quadeep was present and ready to share—if Bex was able to let zer in. 

• • •

“Oh, pickles!” Quadeep said enthusiastically as the two students approached the store. “I tried one of the long, green ones once when I first got here. I did not know they were from your culture!” 

“Did you experience anything… surprising when you tried it?” 

“It was certainly a surprising amount of sodium!” Quadeep said. “I look forward to sampling it again with the benefit of your cultural expertise!”

Before Bex could respond, the shopkeeper grinned at her and said, “Ah, good to see you. I’ve just got a new shipment in that you might enjoy. We’ve got pickled herring today, but supplies never last long.” 

“Herring? Really?” Bex said longingly. Actual earth-based protein. What a gift. She glanced sidelong at Quadeep, who was surveying the offerings curiously. 

“Unfortunately, Sinsinminite physiology cannot process animal protein,” the shopkeeper said, following her train of thought. “Strictly herbivores, you see. But there’s nothing to prevent your friend from eating the onions brined with the herring, if you want to share a closer culinary experience.” 

“That would be perfect,” Bex said. “I always thought the pickled onions were the best part, to be honest. Thank you.” 

Quadeep and Bex bit into their respective treats at the same moment. Bex savored the rich flavor of the wine sauce, the bite of the vinegar, the heaviness of the little slice of protein on her tongue. Her teeth cut into the salted flesh, and she was—

noshing on a small piece of herring as a snack while she bustled around the kitchen: ensuring the chicken would not dry out, mixing gribenes into the chopped liver to provide an extra celebratory crunch, adding the freshly-pulled noodles into the chicken lukshen soup, and from outside she hears the distinctive crunch of breaking glass followed by a rousing cry of “Mazel tov!” and speeds up, knowing that soon the house will be flooded with the shtetl’s hungry residents and the even hungrier happy couple, the tingle of the herring still lingering on her tongue as she quickly assembles a small platter for the bride and groom to eat before facing the crowds—

and a beep interrupted her thoughts. She blinked the memory away to find Quadeep staring at her. Ze had a strange expression on zer narrow face. 

“Did you like it?” Bex asked. 

“Oh, yes,” Quadeep said at once. “A little stronger than my usual preference, but very interesting depth of flavors. But…” Ze hesitated. “This may sound odd.” 

“I won’t judge.” 

“I had a—vision, I suppose you might call it, while eating the un-yun. I was—I think I was you.” When Bex did not immediately call zer crazy or suggest medical attention, ze continued, “I was—you were—wearing a long blue garment and had not eaten breakfast that morning because of anxiety. I wanted to eat the vegetable, but I could not take more than one bite without someone interrupting to congratulate me. It was very odd.” 

“That sounds like my bat mitzvah,” Bex said. “A coming-of-age ritual and celebration among my ethno-religious group.” 

Quadeep twitched zer arms, gears clicking. “Does that mean it was a true memory? Nothing like that happened before. How is it possible for me to have seen your past?” 

“I don’t know. I get memories from the pickles, too, but I don’t know how or why.”

“And you have not investigated?”

Bex shrugged. “I sorta figured—don’t ask questions of fairy tales, you know?” It occurred to her immediately that ze did not know, had no frame of reference for that proverb, but before she could begin to explain, ze had already nodded—a gesture ze had picked up over the weeks of living together.

“Only fools and philosophers try to quantify magic,” ze agreed, and it had the same intonation as she had used, a sense of quoting an ancient piece of wisdom. Ze fidgeted. “You are not upset?” 

“Why would I be upset?” 

“I intruded upon your private memory without permission.” 

“I brought you here and gave you the onion. I didn’t know it would affect you like that, especially since it didn’t before, but I wanted to share with you.” She hesitated. “You’re not upset that I didn’t warn you?” 

“I doubt I would have believed you or understood if you had,” ze admitted. “I am pleased to have shared both of your cultural food and of your past. Will you tell me more about your bat mitzvah?” 

Bex beamed. Together, they walked back towards their rooms, Bex gesticulating enthusiastically as she spoke while Quadeep listened intently. 

She wondered what future generations might think if they glimpsed a memory of this moment. She could not guess what new frontiers and experiences they might explore—any more than her forebears in the shtetl could have imagined the enormity of New York City, or her forebears on the Lower East Side could have imagined Konkarken Station—but she felt confident that wherever they went, there would at least be pickles. 

Leora Spitzer is a queer Jewish bibliophile and writer. Her favorite things include waterfalls, old libraries, speculative fiction, and her pet snake, Princess Buttercup. Although she does not like fresh cucumbers, her favorite kind of pickle is a traditional kosher dill half-sour cucumber pickle.
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