Childhood is a confusing time. I think a lot of people forget about how truly bizarre of an experience it was to be very young, when everything was new and we were still learning about how reality works. I know I was constantly perplexed as a child, and I have a sneaking suspicion that my experiences aren’t that unique. As an only child, I was also constantly surrounded by adults, who seemed like they knew what they were doing. I just sort of assumed that once I got to be some magical age, I would also know what I am doing. This has proven untrue so far, though apparently my naivete means I had appropriate attachment styles with both of my primary caregivers.
One of the things I remember clinging to as a very young child were things that felt consistent and predictable. Things like my favorite color and my favorite toys seemed like life jackets in a sea of endless chaos. As children, it takes us a while to learn patterns, but one thing we learn fairly early on is the consistency of our favorite foods. Like most children, I was a fairly picky eater. Though I am now an adult with a fairly robust palate, I still have vague memories of how intense certain things tasted. Vegetables were nearly impalatable: a horrid mixture of bitter and sour. Carrots were okay, but the only vegetables I really liked (if you can even consider them vegetables) were dill pickles.
Dill pickles have always been deliciously salty and tangy to me. I love the crunch and how refreshing they can be. I am especially fond of foods pickled in brine, though I can absolutely understand why some people find them gross. I, however, find them delicious. It also helps that I have positive associations with them, since my family’s celebrations always had a relish tray. At a time in my life where 90% of food was inedible, unidentifiable, or both, the relish tray was my comfort zone. Now, I don’t know how common relish trays are in other parts of the world, but I can tell you that they are a staple of most celebrations in the Midwestern United States. In my experience, they usually consist of pickles, olives, and the occasional pepper or sliced beet. In my family, we always had black and green olives, plus small dill pickles.
My comfort with the relish tray, of course, extended past my family’s own celebrations. When I was growing up, my parents were close friends with a neighbor family that entertained fairly frequently. I was the same age as their younger daughter, so I was a frequent guest at family gatherings, including picnics and birthday parties. It was at one of these celebrations that my growing confidence in the very nature of reality was irrevocably shattered. And it was all because of something as seemingly mundane as a sweet gherkin.
I don’t remember what our neighbors were celebrating, only that it was in the summertime. It was one of the first parties I can remember going to where I was more or less left to my own devices. I was perhaps four or five, and naturally spent most of the day playing with my friend. My parents, meanwhile, had seemingly disappeared. After a while, I got hungry. However, no one had prepared 4-year old Erica for the surrealness that is trying to determine what to eat at someone else’s family party. I immediately saw a lot of foods I didn’t like at that age: egg salad, a veggie tray, and some sort of crushed pineapple ambrosia. I meekly took a few pieces of watermelon and some cold cuts before my eyes alighted on the relish tray. Relief settled over my tiny body as I grabbed a fistful of pickles before putting them down on my plate.
My friend and I both scooted under the buffet table like little gremlins with our respective plates of food. I’m sure this seemed like perfectly normal behavior to us both, however, recalling events like this makes me understand why the Victorians saw children as being inherently uncivilized little monsters who needed to be tamed by polite society. In our defense, the tablecloth concealed both our hiding place and our atrocious manners. It was truly an ingenious decision on my friend’s part, especially since I was still at that age where my ability to effectively use silverware was questionable at best. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, my friend and I began to eat.
I nibbled on the cold cuts before turning my attention to the watermelon. I remember that it wasn’t especially good, and I eagerly took a big bite of one of the small pickles on my plate. To my utter astonishment, the pickle didn’t taste the way I thought it should. In fact, it tasted very similar to the watermelon I had just eaten, only with notes of cinnamon and clove. I immediately spat it out and took a sip of my cup of water, assuming that this was merely due to some sort of strange aftertaste. Satisfied that I had finally rid my mouth of any residual sweetness, I took another eager bite of the pickle.
What happened next was a flood of sensations. First came the crunch of my tiny teeth biting into the pickle. This was comfortable; familiar. And it lulled me into a false sense of security. Because, my winsome seahorses, what came next was supposed to be the tangy, briny taste that I loved. By this point in my life, I had consumed dozens of these small pickles. In my childish innocence, I assumed that I had identified the pattern: I bite into this small green vegetable and it tastes salty and delicious. However, what I actually tasted was the truly vile combination of brine, cinnamon, sugar, and vegetables. I immediately spat it out on my plate, gazing in horror as my 4-year old mind tried to process the fact that the very fabric of reality seemed to be unraveling around me. I calmed myself. Maybe it was a fluke? I tentatively bit into another pickle. It was the same disgusting and confusing flavors as before.
By this point, my friend’s older sister had joined us under the table. She was three years older and seemed, to me at the time, vastly wise.
“What is this?” I asked her, trying not to cry. Did I suddenly hate one of my favorite foods? Were there different types of the same food that looked identical, but only some of them tasted good? What was going on?
“They’re pickles,” she replied simply.
“But, they’re… sweet,” I said cautiously. She shrugged in response.
“Some pickles are sweet.”
I simply stared at her in horror. The idea that there were two foods that looked identical, but tasted vastly different was too much for my little developing brain to process. I quickly stashed my plate of uneaten pickles under a nearby credenza and fled to the backyard.
For weeks after that, I found myself wondering if there were other food imposters like sweet pickles. Would I one day bite into a chicken nugget only to find out that it tasted like cotton candy? Was there salty maple syrup? The possibilities were endless, and mentally exhausting, especially to someone who thought that there was probably a monster living behind the couch. The ever present fear that my senses could actually lie to me was even more disturbing. If my eyes couldn’t determine the difference between one of my favorite foods and a disgusting knockoff, how would they be able to discern shapes or colors? What were shapes and colors, anyway? How did we agree on what they looked like? Did anything actually mean anything?
Eventually I decided that these questions were too big and too difficult for me to answer. I also probably got distracted by the latest Barbie doll or shiny object and quickly forgot about my budding existential crisis. However, the fear and loathing I felt towards sweet pickles has never fully left me. To this day, I fucking hate sweet pickles. They’re deceitful little bastards that have no right to be included in anything, except maybe if they’re clearly labeled on a restaurant menu. Even then, I have never been in a situation where I have thought to myself, “gosh, this dish could really use something that’s not sure if it wants to be sweet or salty, and ends up just being bad at both.” And even if I had thought that, I think it’s generally a good idea to avoid things that make you question the very nature of reality. None of us need that, especially not right now.