I found a gift on my desk last week. It was something unexpected and never before experienced in my six-plus decades. Knowing I am an aficionado of southern foods and especially old Appalachian recipes, the kindly person who snuck in the gift while I was out to lunch attached a note of explanation to the Mason jar.
“Here is a batch of homemade pickled bologna for you. It is spicy hot and vinegary. I hope you enjoy it.”
I held the container up to light from the window. Thick slices of rag bologna cut from the roll were stacked in vinegary liquid that swirled with red pepper flakes, thin slices of garlic, rings of raw onion and several jalapeño peppers.
Unscrewing the jar lid, I inhaled the aroma of boiled vinegar and spices. It took me back to my childhood when my father and uncles pickled meats on frigid hog-killing days. Pig knuckles, souse and pickled sausages were part of the pork bounty prepared for the holidays.
A voice interrupted my reverie.
“What is that Gawd-awful smell? Someone needs to wash their feet!” complained the resident of an adjoining office.
Such is the common reaction of those for whom the delights of Appalachian cuisine are unknown or unappreciated. Simply put, some old-time recipes are better enjoyed in private or with a small group of friends with like tastes.
My wife, for example, was a native Appalachian but could not endure the smell of sardines, which are half the ingredients of the old fisherman’s lunch: sardines and crackers. She would flee the house when I opened a tin of Possum brand sardines.
Some folks have the same reaction to the preparation of kraut, that old southern standby brought here by German immigrants. The fermentation process by which raw cabbage pickles and turns to kraut is pungent, I will admit. But the aroma to me is full of promise for fall evenings when the air is crisp as an apple and a pressure cooker full of spareribs and kraut is rattling and steaming on the stove.
Likewise, salted cod often elicits disgust and dismay among those uninitiated to the Italian immigrant holiday fish recipe. Hard-scrabble Appalachian farmers at Christmas adopted this dish because it was cheap and tasty. The preparation was smelly, however.
The salted fish must be soaked in cold water for two weeks. The smell produced by the de-brining process is akin to being downwind from a large bloated carp on the riverbank during high summer. Nasty does not begin to describe it.
But the taste of the rehydrated cod, battered and gently fried, is to die for, especially when served with lemon slices or vinegar sauce. It is still a Christmas Eve tradition in many southern homes of Italian descent.
Finally, I am often saddened by the reaction of so many people to the noble pickled egg. The hen’s egg was God’s gift to man. In all its cooked forms, the humble egg makes us glad. When farm women in Appalachia saw their laying hen flocks reach peak production, one way to save the extra yield was to boil eggs and pickle them.
I am not talking about those monstrous jars of rubbery oblong things found in taverns or convenience stores; no, the true picked egg is the result of a delicate meshing of flavors from fresh garden herbs, hot peppers and just the right mixture of vinegar and spring water. The plain cracker is never elevated to a higher plain than when accompanied by a homemade pickled egg, in my opinion.
Again, the smell of pickled eggs leaves some gasping. I don’t understand why some of the best-tasting things in life have smells you must get past. Ramps are a good example. Nothing is better than a bait of ramps in the spring. The smell, however, could clear out a church faster than a sermon on tithing.
In today’s politically correct environment, I am relegated to eating my pickled bologna in the privacy of my home — along with pickled eggs and a mess of ramps collected down by the creek. I have invited friends with whom I share the taste of these old hill country treats.
They are bringing the crackers and room deodorizer.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.