Jars of pickles lined the storeroom, ranks of every-shade-of-green stretching row on row, in all the houses of my youth -- they ranged from tangy dills, with their salty brine and crown of just-cut dill, to fat, clear slices of lime sweets in their thick, sugary syrup. No Southern table was complete without a dish or two of the chosen-just-right-for-the-meal, home-canned goodies. Every jar on those shelves was "put up" at home, and was precious in its own right, having cost the cook Summer mornings of picking in the glaring sun, with the hairy, reaching cucumber vines grabbing at ankles, and the velvety thorns itching hands past bearing.
Washing and preparing, slicing and canning, measuring out those long-used receipts -- those brought into being the great shelves of Summer bounty, gained by the literal sweat of brows bent over stoves in the equally-hot kitchens. The scent of vinegar was a constant, from today's cooking, from yesterday's brining, from the fresh-put-down crock of sauerkraut in its strata of salt, from last week's churn bubbling its foamy overflow past the upended dinner plate and the layers of old sheeting yarn-tied as a fly-guard under the lid, and out into the pan beneath.
There were Grace Church pickles, with their twenty-one days of attention, a first churn rest in brine made with "salt to float an egg," according to the yellowed old recipe written in faded brown script like that of no other "hand" in our family. They sat quietly in the brine for a few days, then went into another egg-measured brew -- alum the "size of,” for eyeballing the lump needed. Then, days later, rinsings and fresh-waterings and vinegar and sugar for their final rest before canning in the big old white-speckled blue canner, with cloves and allspice tied in little bags made from squares of old pillowslips.
I always assumed they were named for an actual church, since little faded steeples dotted the hills for miles around the place of my Mammaw's raising. And those same churches sheltered and sustained many a proud cook whose receipts were coveted by every lady in the countryside. Or they could have been christened for an angelically-named person -- who remembered?
These pickles were given the place of honor, jars polished and gleaming, right in the glare of the ceiling-cord single light bulb that dangled in the storeroom. Anything that took that much work deserved looking at, and often.
Then there were the close-packed jars of dills, made of the medium-size cucumbers, with their topknot of fresh dill and some sliced garlic in the jar bottom. The recipe started out: “a scant cup of salt,” and the ambiguity did not matter -- everyone’s teacups were a different size.
The same tongue-curling salty brine was also used for baby green tomatoes, baby eggplant, and okra, all of which got the requisite scatter of sliced hot red peppers in the bottom of each jar. Yellow squash was sliced, layered with salt to sit overnight, then cooked off with red bell pepper, sliced onions, and a freckling of mustard seed in the clear, sweetish juice.
Okra was a category unto itself, a family thing, either loved or hated, and the squat jars saved from store-bought pickles and jams and olives were filled tight. Okra was chosen exactly for the height of each jar. I’d walk up and down the ranks of shining glass, dealing out the pods by size and length. A little bulb of garlic nestled between those pointy tips, the smallest wasp-tail red pepper, and salty vinegar was our recipe, and these pickles were usually saved for holidays and other special occasions.
Lime pickles were soaked overnight in a brew of dissolved household lime, the same choking stuff that was scattered on the dirt floor of the henhouse. The cucumber slices emerged next morning crisp and friable, most of their own moisture removed; next came many rinsings, very careful rinsings to keep the slices from breaking apart in their delicate state. Vinegar and sugar -- heavy on the sugar overnight, with another little clove/allspice bag, then the cook-and-can early the next morning -- these were the "easy" pickles. They turned out heavenly crisp, snapping in your mouth like a slice of fresh carrot, but tooth-achingly sweet, with a syrup that ran thick as Grandpa's home-squeezed sorghum.
The same treatment went to sliced green tomatoes, with the spices scattered into the jar, and bread-and-butters were prepared according to the squash recipe. On every dinner and supper table sat little bowls of pickles; several small cut-glass dishes were saved for special, and one had three little divisions for different kinds. Beets had a clear glass bowl all their own -- they had been simmered with the peel on, to slip easily off with the press of a hand, then the slices simmered again with a light vinegar/sugar/water syrup, which turned the deep shade of a good burgundy.
Sliced beets, baby beets -- each had its place in the canning hierarchy. Days were devoted to simmering and peel-slipping and slicing. Every summer, the heavy yellow Playtex gloves I wore for beets slowly darkened from pale lavender to mauvish to deepest Welch’s purple. I wore them so as not to head off to church looking as if I’d butchered a steer early in the morning. That juice would leave a stain on your hands almost as bad as green walnuts.
And the baby ones had to be snuck into the bottom of your picking tub, at least in our acres of garden -- my first grandfather-in-law, who manned the tilling tractor and the watering hoses, kept a keen eye on picking anything before it got to the “worth it” stage. He was a firm believer in getting the most out of every seed and every hour we spent bent over a hoe or squatting between those rows to reap the bounty -- and always, that meant leaving things be until they were big enough to have earned their keep and become worthy of the table. He taught my children the thrift of the waiting, and as we squatted together amongst the steam-rising rows of green, as they picked so long as I told fairy tales and recited poetry, they faithfully chose only the ready-to-pick vegetables. It's odd that the only one not to keep the faith is the one who makes our little home garden now -- he'll come in with buckets filled with all sizes; it's for me to sort and use as I choose.
I used to wait and go out later in the evening, after supper, while Walter Cronkite kept Papa’s rapt attention, and gather whatever looked best and freshest and tenderest. Tiny spineless cucumbers to be drenched in the dill brine and “make” before the big guys in the half-gallon jugs; the smaller-than-golf balls beets to pickle into tender one-bite treats for “company,” the smallest turnips for slicing and munching raw with a sprinkle of salt, a handful of the tiniest of radishes, small as beans, and the merest wisps of baby green beans stirring in the breeze, to be mixed with rinsed leftover pintos or northerns, shreds of sweet onion, little red diamonds of bell pepper, and a sugar-enhanced vinaigrette for a salad worthy of any church supper. Pickles have been around since they had to make their own vinegar, standing in a bowl or crock 'til the sourness developed on its own. There's the infamous pickle dish in Ethan Frome, the piccalilli-and-stones disaster in The Long, Long Trailer, a funny Andy Griffith episode involving a midnight refrigerator raid, and of course, the kerosene pickles.
My favorite reference in literature is one from a book called The House at Old Vine, by Norah Lofts. It chronicles the centuries of an old country household from the middle ages to modern England, with all its uses along the way. One of its incarnations was as a boy's school of the earlier years -- one of the grim, cold, chilblains-and-gruel chapters in England's history, times which strengthened or killed off many a male scholar. The couple running the school meted out barely-sufficient meals, giving the boys the best they could with their meager income, with great pots of overnight-simmered oatmeal scooped into eager bowls, and a flour-and-water mixture which was mixed with a scant few eggs and scrambled for special days. There's a line something like "the boys called it cowshit but ate it eagerly anyway."
But the great reward, the best-of-the-best, awarded for valor or grades or success on the playing field, was a turn at the pickle-barrel. The brine in that barrel was aged and ageless -- the housewife had tossed in rinds, bits of raw vegetables, green plums and knotty apples, purposely-cultivated cucumbers and squash, with nary a concern for suitability or sanitation. Many a paragraph is devoted to the coveting, the enjoying, the maneuvering of that long fork in the jealously-guarded try at getting the biggest piece onto the tines.
A cucumber was a prize; a bit of gourd or squash, second place, but a fist-sized pickled onion -- Grail. No imagination needed to understand the great hunger for such a tangy, salty bite, or the guarded, greedy relish with which it was devoured. Words aren't needed to convey the bright-eyed, lusty joy with which the boys tucked into their dripping prize. The bland, bulk-laden floury food, the grain-stapled diet, the greasy boiled bacon -- what a treat to bite into a juicy, sour, salty pickle. Just the thought gives an under-tongue tingle akin to sniffing the French's jar.
The prevalence of bland food in so many novels also brings to mind an unforgettable passage in one of the James Herriot books, involving boiled bacon -- a great fat-laden wet plateful of it -- which he, the guest, was expected to down. With his humble host and hostess looking eagerly on, his only salvation was a big glass of Scotch and a dish of pickled onions.
I know only the Southern standards, the old recipes, though my refrigerator harbors at any time five or six kinds; a quart Tupperware of turmeric-yellowed thin-sliced crisp sweet onions in a mild brine is a yearly gift from a friend. Some little round Kirbys are in a sesame/rice vinegar soak right now, to go with the lovely baby bok choy I'll stir-fry for supper. A flat fridge dish of beets, straight from a can, are bleeding their juices into a handful of sugar, a dash of vinegar, and three cloves.
And, since our move to the city with all its markets and restaurants and shops with their wonderful, exotic offerings, we’ve learned the joys of kimchee, with its sour tang punctuated by the scattered bits of peppery redness; the little dish of quarter-sliced cucumber in its own special brew of rice vinegar, sesame oil, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds, which is set down in welcome, along with about a dozen other offerings, even before we order at our favorite Korean restaurant.
We linger at the cippolini tubs in the big supermarket, with their purples and greens and matching aromas; we dip up fat juicy jalapenos and olives of every hue in the spectrum; we enjoy tastes and savors and vegetables we learned of only after we moved here.
My own history of pickles is a very narrow slice. But they're the ones I know, the ones I continue to make, the ones that have been passed down through many vine-and-brine-chapped hands, and I'm proud of all of them. But I do love to find a new vegetable, a new brine ingredient, a new combination to add to the long, respectable list used by generations of cooks. However, the biggest crock, an elderly ten-gallon ceramic beauty, has been retired from years of holding eye-tearing brine and bushels of curing vegetables. It now rests in the hosta bed under the huge backyard tree all summer, support for a pretty octagon of marble which holds the biggest parlor fern.
In winters past, the longing for something green consumed many an hour amongst people with no way to preserve any kind of salad ingredient, and no hope save spring for a crisp, fresh taste. The wonderful, rich savors of Southern cooking, the pot of greens enhanced by a few drops from the bottle of pepper sauce; the soft, salt-and-pork seasoned vegetables, the great pots of dried beans with several meaty ham hocks falling from the bone, the crusty pan of steaming cornbread -- all needed just that touch of vinegary, tangy pickle to make the meal complete and satisfying. In my own home, I can think of no treasure save for pictures of the children and grandchildren, or our enormous walls of books, which could provide the contentment and feeling of wealth and accomplishment as those shelves of homemade pickles.
Rachel Dulsey (aka racheld: G.R.I.T.S. Girl by birth, Ole Miss Girl by Daddy's love of those Rebels, Learned to read at four, and haunted smalltown libraries ever after. Wife, Mother, Grandmother, (about-to-be-again, twice in September). Tender of homefires, the Comfort and the Cozy; Fierce and Loyal Friend. Pretty good cook, Scribbler, Admirer of the Written Word in almost all its forms, Bookstore Junkie. Kind to small creatures and Friend to Fairies everywhere.