words by Jana Fay Ragsdale
photo by Rachael Mahlandt
Slow Food Portland, in collaboration with the Portland Farmers Market and Cook First Portland held three chef-led quick-pickling events at Portland area farmers markets over the course of two weekends in October, when fall produce was at its peak for preserving. Dubbed “Disco Pickle” after World Disco Soup Day, the annual event held in cities all over the globe where organizers
host dance parties while turning food waste into soup. Both Discos provide a fun, low-barrier, economical entry point into cooking while showing people how to use ingredients that might otherwise go to waste, empowering people with the ability to make and store nourishing food.
The first Disco Pickle event took place at the PSU Farmers Market—a large, urban farmers’ market that is as popular with locals as it is with tourists. Another took place at the Lents International Farmers Market—a smaller, neighborhood market. Disco Pickle at both markets were successful in engaging both experienced and first-time quick picklers. Volunteers offered samples of pickled items made with the brines being made that day. They also shared information about the upcoming demonstration and DIY pickling station, and provided suggestions for produce. Market goers then had a chance to shop with an eye towards the produce they wanted to pickle and farmers were keen to participate.
October provided brine-friendly produce like apples (pickled with ginger, star anise and clove), grapes, pears, radishes, zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic (pickled in a soy brine recipe from chef’s grandma), beans, beets, cauliflower and even wild mushrooms. Over 85 market-goers bought approximately 57 pounds of produce and 25 heads of garlic, purchased directly from farmers at the market and yielding 131 unique jars of Disco Pickles.
Each event began with a chef-led demonstration that included preparing the brine and a how-to on what to preserve as well as ideas on incorporating quick-pickled ingredients into daily meals. Then, as a disco soundtrack played, organizers were on hand to assist with everything from produce prep to knife skills to blending aromatics. An array of herbs, spices, seeds, clean jars, cutting boards, knives, and, of course, hot brine, rounded out the free prep offerings. A suggested $1 donation covered the cost of the jars.
The many known powers of communal dining include bringing strangers together to break down barriers and strengtheingn bonds through the basic need and pleasure of being nourished. Communal cooking combines all of this as well as a more conscious acknowledgement of your neighbor. When the mise en place and ingredients are shared, eye contact and engagement become essential. Add disco music and it’s a party!
What we didn’t expect was that so many people would share and exchange produce: one family used vibrant stems from someone’s discarded beet tops, while the few extra cloves of garlic they had were left behind for the next picklers. A stunning, ringed purple radish was thin-sliced and packed off to three different homes. It was immediately apparent that something so simple and virtually foolproof as quick pickling allowed the perfect environment for an open exchange of ideas without self-consciousness, where experience mattered less than enthusiasm.
The colorful glass jars now sitting in over 100 refrigerators throughout the region are like 3D snapshots of a particular farmers’ market afternoon. Of a new superpower. Of a good feeling. Pickled apple slices on a sandwich taken to work are a piquant garnish and also a memory of chatting with and working alongside a stranger. That it was also a radical act in revolutionizing the global food system probably comes to mind less, and that’s ok. To paraphrase Emerson: “Every revolution was first a thought in one person’s mind.” Our revolution begins one meal at a time, with each carrot top or beet root or crisp apple gleaned from a parking strip.
Disco Pickle is easy to replicate, relatively low-cost, and can be scaled up or down depending upon the audience and venue. The organizers endeavored to build an event that could be launched year-round by almost anyone in any setting. An inventory list and instructions for launching your own Disco Pickle is available for download at cookfirstpdx.org. Be sure to publicize your events with #discopickle and share your success and suggestions. As Tristram Stuart, the founder of the environmental organization Feedback, once said: “In order to save the planet you have to throw a better party than the people who are ruining it.”