Share your pickles, please

Large glass jars on old country road

I spent three weeks in Hiroshima this summer at my in-law’s house. My mother-in-law passed away a few years ago and my father-in-law now lives in a nursing home near us in Tokyo. With the house otherwise empty, we try and visit several times a year.

Empty is the wrong word. The house is still full of my in-laws and their life before they moved to Tokyo to live with us. (The house is also home to a number of spiders!)

Every trip, I try and tackle a different area of the house that needs attention. I tell myself these projects are important to do. The projects are good for the house and a good task for a devoted daughter-in-law to do. My husband knows that whatever I’ve chosen to tackle is actually an excuse to keep me away from writing.

This summer I decided to tackle the “yukashita” in the kitchen, or literally, the “under-floor” space. Many Japanese homes have a special storage area accessed by a trapdoor in the kitchen floor. The under-floor space is naturally cool and good for storing canned goods.

My mother-in-law, or Okasan as I called her, used the under-floor space to store all of her umeboshi (pickled plums) and pickled rakkyo, a Japanese scallion similar to a shallot. She also kept store-bought canned fruit, extra bottles of soy sauce, cooking oil, cooking sake, and a variety of liquor.

Over time, the space filled up. Over time, the cans, jars, and bottles got pushed back and out of reach. Over time, some of the boxes holding the cans and bottles got moldy. Over time, no one wanted to open the trap door to the under-floor space.

I’m super sensitive to mold. I was afraid that if we waited any longer the mold would become a serious health threat. So, this summer we pulled out everything and lined it up outside behind the house where I could sort out what was still salvageable. Clearing everything out of the space only took about 30 minutes. Sorting it took days and left me with a heavy heart.

Rumor has it that umeboshi will last over 100 years. Sure enough, Okasan’s umeboshi still looked and tasted good. However, I had to dump every one of the gallon jars of pickled rakkyo. I tasted them to be sure. Instead of the crunchy bites of pickled onion flavor, my mouth was filled with mushy onion yuck that I quickly spit out.

We’ve all let food go to waste. I’m sure I could go look in my refrigerator or cupboards now and find something outdated and no longer tasting great. When I find something, I have a twinge of guilt and let it go, praying it will go back to the Earth and recycle through the food chain again as quickly as possible.

Throwing away gallons of homemade pickled rakkyo broke my heart. I thought about the time it took to grow them. The time it took to harvest them. The time it took to peel each one of the bite-sized rakkyo so there would be enough to fill a gallon jar. I tried to calculate the hundreds of rakkyo that went into each jar. I thought about how tasty they would have been served with homemade curry or eaten standing in front of the refrigerator at 2:00 AM when I couldn’t sleep.

I was angry. Why didn’t Okasan share the rakkyo with us? What was she saving them for? Why did she let them go to waste? Why did she keep making them each year when there were still so many leftover? Why didn’t I check the under-floor space sooner?

The rakkyo and other canned goods didn’t go completely to waste. I took bucketful after bucketful up the path behind the house to the base of the cherry tree where we usually dump vegetable scraps from the kitchen. I don’t know how the tree felt, but I did observe many insects and small critters that were happy with the offering.

As I washed out all the jars, I thought about my own rakkyo. I don’t mean real pickled rakkyo. I mean all the services I’ve created over the years and then never promoted. I thought about my clients who have done the same.

It’s time to share.

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About the Author:

Hi! I'm Marci. I have a dedicated spiritual practice, enjoy studying alternative-healing modalities, cooking a whole-foods flexitarian diet, and exploring Japan, where I've lived for 30 years. Learn more about my workbooks for kids, and journals for adults. Also, look for my upcoming memoir Otosan, which chronicles the five years I cared for my father-in-law, a WWII Japanese war veteran, as he navigates Alzheimer’s.