A little less picturesque than the usual breakfast views, sunsets, and Anya love-portraits, but hear me out, please (and, for future reference: no more pickle insults in my presence).
My landlords, who are actual saints (raise your hand if you have a landlord who replaces light bulbs too tall for you to reach and also says “Please don’t stop!” when you rehearse Beethoven string quartets upstairs. No one? I didn’t think so), arranged for a new fridge to be delivered for my apartment this weekend. I spent some time, before it arrived, cleaning out the freezer (bagels of known provenance but unknown timeframe of origin, hello) and the fridge, which, aside from discarding old vegenaise and recycling jars previously filled with expired jams (I don’t like jam lol), basically involved navigating my way through a small but comprehensive pickle factory. Cornichons x2; local-artisanal hakureis and beets; a couple kinds of bread-and-butters and dilled spears; giardinera from my favorite local cheese shop; and my own salty umeboshi-pickled radishes and blisteringly-sour-hot pickled jalapeños (I’m keeping those, they hurt so good). Basically, it is no wonder that it takes a whole lemon on a dish for me to register it as acidic (I blew out that part of my palate a long time ago, but I ate really well doing it), and it surprises no one who has eaten a meal or their way through a concert tour with me that I had a pickle library taking up most of the bottom shelf of my fridge (a square footage so large it might have held many, many other things).
As I cleared it all, I found this treasure, which I somehow recognized before I even knew what I was seeing. It was in a pretty self-effacing getup (unlabeled jar, two not-recent cukes sitting in a swampy greenish-brown brine), but the moment I picked it up I smiled and closed my eyes in disbelief for a few moments.
I expected that it wouldn’t smell like I remembered, but when I opened the jar, there it all was: not just the lunch where these pickles, with their particular sherry-vinegared pointed edge, appeared (it was a sandwich on the poetry that was Cleonice’s focaccia, that gorgeous artichoke pesto spread over it with fresh mozz and spinach — a glorified cheese sandwich, which is my favorite kind of sandwich), but everything. The drives up to Maine from Boston, blissful and illicit-feeling, novel beyond compare; the drives up to Boston from New York, during which we somehow embarrassingly catalogued the Complete Chipotles of Connecticut and their strengths and (more extensive, though it did not stop us from patronizing them) weaknesses; the trio rehearsals during that period of time and the years that followed, in turns ecstatic and awful and sometimes both; the anxieties I was battling and the people I fell in love with and all the confusion and courage of trying to understand and build a new life in those early years when the trio first got to Boston. Somehow, instead, only, of smelling pickle brine when I opened the jar, I felt what my life felt like then: all its messiness and fear and desperation to connect and figure out who I was going to be (and: how?).
It’s amazing the way that the things we eat — like perhaps only pieces of music and the people we remember them with — can transport us back to the exact moments when they first came into our lives, and all their appearances in the years that follow: the way that bánh xèo, with its ecstatic crispiness and bean sprouts and usually-too-cooked shrimps, makes me feel like a kid in the Western Massachusetts summertime, no matter how (much less) good or far away it is from my original, or the way black tea with milk and sugar, with buttered toast dipped into it, reminds me of the beautiful Trinidadian nanny I loved (love still), who took care of me and offered me precious Lipton tea when I was not yet allowed to drink caffeine at home (is it any wonder I love black tea so madly now?); the way that the Brahms F major viola quintet will for ever be the sweetest, most tender-hearted Brahms to me because of the wonder of those few weeks at Yellow Barn several summers ago, and the way the C minor piano quartet will always feel like falling in love when I was 18 (and, uncannily, into a less healthy, very-bad different love, a decade later). The way that Seymour will always live in some universe alongside and within the scores of the pieces I heard him play and which came into my life in huge, miraculous relief in his hands: 109, 110, the Archduke and the Ghost, 70, no. 2 and both Schuberts, Brahms B and C majors, both Dvorak piano quartets. All of it.
And so these pickles emerged, an unexpected treasure at the very back corner of my fridge, evidently too precious to eat and obviously (therefore) far too precious to throw away in the years since the meal where I managed to make off with a whole jar of them. (During which years, incidentally, everything changed: this magical place closed and the trio, a couple years later, disbanded; and, then, most heartbreakingly by a large margin, wonderful Rich — our trio’s hero, the Cleonice family’s “Papa Chef,” and the restaurant’s miraculous mad artist-chef and heartbeat — passed away.) I fell in love with these pickles — and proceeded, shamelessly, to beg for some to take home (hugest “I’ll-die-if-I-can’t-have-it-Rich” smile on my face, I am certain and not denying) — on what must have been one of our last visits up to Cleonice (in its Maine Grind location, up the street from its original home in Ellsworth). It was a gorgeous icy autumnal week, probably in between some nearly-unpaid concert or other Downeast, which were most always a ruse so we could slip away from Boston and have a slow, miraculous dinner: pollo pil pil, grilled baby octopus, htipiti, and that spinach salad to end all salads, with carafes of pink spiced lemonade and astonishing pastas and the chocolate sorbet that made us weep. Usually we made our way back there again the next day (after walking — quietly, reverently — around the empty, frozen Kneisel Hall campus), a cold-sunny late-morning visit that let us stretch into lunch — laughing and crying and eating duck livers with with Rich and Cary and all these people we loved. To our astonishment, this place and these people had somehow adopted us as we had adopted them: the mere act of calling ourselves Trio Cleonice years before (we needed a name, with our first performance of Mozart B-flat approaching) had unfolded into these very hours. There was a kind of desperate joy to these moments, soaking up this food we loved so much, in this place that was our home: a kind of North Star no matter what was going on with all of us in the group (and, in the height of exhaustion and traveling and early Boston days and our own humanity and imperfection, there was a lot)
This jar. So rough, and yet, in spite of that, so vividly full of time, of place, of a self I had forgotten. (Because of it, perhaps, and not in spite. Is roughness what makes memories memories?) I couldn’t believe it when I had finally made my way through the fridge — just one jar left — and suddenly saw the pickles I loved: soaked in sherry vinegar, unabashedly acidic in the way that Cleonice’s food sometimes was, to my great delight (you remember those carrots, too, if you were lucky enough to eat there in the glory years). I loved them so much that I felt I couldn’t live without them, and I begged Rich for another one, and when he brought me another one, I begged him for a whole jar to take home (he paused with his drollest smile, sheepish and bemused, before he disappeared to the prep station and came back with a jar). I thought I would be sad when I opened it, and that the vinegar would have subsided from its gleeful bite into a kind of old age, but — as nothing has for many years, now, much to a heartache that may never fully go away for many of us — it smelled like Cleonice. And, because it smelled like that — that place, that home I knew and which knew me — it somehow brought me back to what I lived through in those moments: to the first joyful attempts at Dvorak F minor and Schumann G minor, and to confusing, awkward returns with Ives Trio and Schubert B-flat; to the discomfort of being quietly, secretly in love with Boston and not knowing where that left me with New York; to strings of ridiculous and comically inappropriate romantic involvements, following my heroic exit from an even more inappropriate (and not comic) long-term one; to the desperation of wanting to prove something in my life, with my voice at the cello, and not knowing how I could ever share myself with the world if I wasn’t perfect.
Cleaning the fridge is my most-detested household task, second only to unloading the dishwasher (easier post-Marie Kondo, honestly, which I can’t say for the fridge cleaning, as evidenced by the Brookline Pickle Museum, may it rest in peace and not return). But (sainted landlords!) following this window where I finally did it much more thoroughly than ever before (am I an adult now?), I have been sitting with all that these pickles — of all things — brought pouring back. In the most tangible way, it has been the wild smell of these tiny old sherry-vinegared Maine cucumbers, and the pleasure and bittersweetness of holding a piece of Cleonice in my hand. Yet there is a deeper sweetness, ineffable and clear: a long-awaited, patiently-won self-compassion for who I was as I lived through the trio years and their many joys; for all the ways it was hard and scary to be who I was during those years, joyful though much of the time truly was.
You must be wondering, before I close out too sappily, if I tried one. I’m not a monster. Of course I did. (Did you think “I’m not a monster” meant I wouldn’t eat fermented vegetables that have been in my fridge for longer than my dog has been alive? Have we met?) It wasn’t Cleonice-ecstasy-level food any more, or honestly probably even safe to eat, half a decade later. But there is something about what we love — the people, the music, the tiny bites of food so transportive and wondrous that we remember a whole life surrounding them: something about what we love that, like long-forgotten nostalgic pickles*, lets us feel safe as we are not safe, that lets us feel longing even as the memories are a little broken and imperfect, that lets us begin to remember and integrate and even love the versions of ourselves that we used to be ashamed of and try to forget.
*Gonna copyright the phrase “long-forgotten nostalgic pickles” since I’m sure everyone is gonna try to steal it for their own.