Summa Cum Let­tuce

How one recipe got me to Ox­ford

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Gail Singer

How one recipe got me to Ox­ford

Grow­ing up in Win­nipeg in the 1960s, I longed to at­tend the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. I ad­mired schol­ar­ship and felt a des­per­ate need to at­tend a school that would plumb the depths of my lazy brain. But I come from a very or­di­nary fam­ily; I was one of few girl cousins to pur­sue post-se­condary ed­u­ca­tion. And so I stayed home and went to the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba in­stead.

My fa­ther was not an in­tel­lec­tual. His favourite read­ing ma­te­ri­als were Reader’s Di­gest Con­densed Books. But he was kind and sweet, and he earned my re­spect for in­clud­ing me in his ex­ten­sive culi­nary pur­suits. Our base­ment shelves were jammed with jars of deep red Bing cher­ries, halved BC peaches, blue­berry wine, dill pick­les, dill toma­toes, and, oc­ca­sion­ally, pick­led let­tuce. Pick­led let­tuce is lit­tle known, but it’s a de­light­ful spur-of-the-mo­ment treat. You don’t have to wait un­til June or Au­gust for it to come into sea­son — you could de­cide on a Fri­day night to make some and eat it that week­end with a corned beef sand­wich.

Even­tu­ally, I sub­li­mated my long­ing for an Ox­ford ed­u­ca­tion and em­barked on life as a film­maker. I mostly made doc­u­men­taries. It wasn’t easy. I had to raise money, be ac­count­able to those who funded my work with­out los­ing my in­tegrity, and as­sem­ble footage into com­pelling sto­ries. I did my re­search and tried not to let my fear of fail­ure over­whelm me.

My trav­els took me to dis­tant lands. I was daz­zled by food and was rarely pre­sented with a dish I dis­liked or feared. Okay, I didn’t want a sec­ond help­ing of grilled cock­roach or lizard in north­east­ern Thai­land, and I sent back soup with flies in a for­merly state-run cafe­te­ria in Moscow. But my first en­coun­ters with Thai food in Bangkok and Chi­ang Mai were sub­lime ex­pe­ri­ences un­matched to this day.

Decades later, back home in Toronto, some new neigh­bours dropped by. They were a young cou­ple from Moscow hop­ing to find post grad­u­ate work in Canada. We spent the evenings drink­ing vodka, telling sto­ries, and eat­ing what­ever was in my fridge.

One cold win­ter’s night, I found my­self with­out any mix for the vodka. I made a drink, ex­plain­ing it con­tained juice from pick­les made with my fa­ther’s recipe. These were not the first guests to whom I had of­fered this “pick­le­tini,” but they were its most en­thu­si­as­tic im­bibers. I felt like we had just cut veins and ex­changed blood. I talked about my fa­ther’s culi­nary skills, in­clud­ing his method for pick­ling let­tuce. I had some in the fridge. We feasted on it. More pick­le­ti­nis. Sasha, whose field of study in­cludes lost food tra­di­tions, was over­joyed. Pick­led let­tuce was hereto­fore un­known to her.

When she asked me if we could col­lab­o­rate on a pa­per to be pre­sented at the Ox­ford Sym­po­sium on Food & Cook­ery, it took me a minute to ab­sorb the news. Ox­ford Univer­sity in Ox­ford? It would mean much re­search and writ­ing — skills I had honed as a film­maker ap­plied in a dif­fer­ent way.

Back in Man­i­toba, I tracked down cooks, cook­books, and hand­writ­ten recipes. I pestered old friends for their mem­o­ries of mak­ing and eat­ing pick­led let­tuce. My best friend’s mother dis­missed the del­i­cacy with a wave of her hand, im­ply­ing it was be­neath con­tempt. When I raised the sub­ject with one older cou­ple, the hus­band said, “Dave makes pick­led let­tuce.”

His wife in­ter­jected on be­half of the other man’s spouse. “She made the pick­led let­tuce for Dave.”

“Yeah, and she isn’t even Jewish,” her hus­band re­marked.

The woman el­bowed her hus­band in the ribs. “Give her a break, she con­verted fifty years ago!”

I won­dered if, for the Ox­ford au­di­ence, this sort of re­search would be suf­fi­ciently pro­found.

Fi­nally, we were there, in the UK. In his open­ing re­marks, the chair of the sym­po­sium warned us that au­di­ence mem­bers might wan­der in and out of the lec­ture freely — drawn to the va­ri­ety of speak­ers and big names at the con­fer­ence. What kind of Ox­ford ed­u­ca­tion was this? It was unimag­in­able to me that se­ri­ous schol­ar­ship might be in­ter­rupted by cock­tail-party be­hav­iour. I’ve never liked peo­ple walk­ing out of my films, ei­ther. But I had a card up my sleeve.

I had de­cided to make pick­led let­tuce while lec­tur­ing. I lined up in­gre­di­ents and read­ied the jars, ex­plain­ing to our au­di­ence that pick­led let­tuce is in the cat­e­gory of in­stant fer­ment be­cause lac­tuca sativa is so por­ous and so agree­able. And that if the au­di­ence stayed through­out both my talk and Sasha’s talk, the let­tuce would be ready and we had enough for ev­ery­one to try. So by all means, stay, I said. And they did!

About a year later, in San Fran­cisco, I picked up a big, beau­ti­ful new book called The Art of Fer­men­ta­tion. It was by San­dor El­lix Katz, one of the key­note speak­ers at the same Ox­ford Sym­po­sium. He had writ­ten in one pas­sage, “Gail Singer grew up in Win­nipeg, the grand­daugh­ter of Ro­ma­nian Jewish im­mi­grants and the daugh­ter of a fa­ther who made many kinds of pick­les.”

My dream of mak­ing it to Ox­ford had a long fer­men­ta­tion, but it came to be. We are all sim­ply par­tic­i­pants in the in­vis­i­ble trans­for­ma­tions that are part of a life.

il­lus­tra­tion by Tal­lu­lah Fon­taine

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