As temperatures drop and the arrival of winter storm clouds underline the inevitable change of seasons, we watch as snow covers last year’s garden patch, now just a colorful memory. As a young lad who enjoyed the arrival of winter, I took special comfort in the knowledge that now, at last, we could start opening those colorful Ball jars slumbering on basement shelves which had been “out-of-bounds” for weeks or months. Of course we had already made a dent in the rows of “common” preserved garden vegetables in their own quart jars, such as beans, corn, tomatoes, beets, English peas and such. It was the pickled preserves that seemed to us kids to be the “jewels” of canning times, partly because we all played a part in the work that went on in a kitchen filled for days with the mouth-watering scent of vinegar, spices, and savory seasonings.
It seemed to me that it was usually a Saturday night, as an accompaniment to tuna salad and Dutch-fried potatoes that Mom would say, “Oh I think we need some pickles to complete the table-setting.” Since our family was equally split between Pepper Relish - an amalgam of chopped cabbage onions and peppers – and Mom’s three-generation-old specialty, Chili Sauce; a thick sweet-sour tomato, pepper and onion wonder simmered for hours with a potpourri of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and mace tied in its cheese-cloth cloak dangling from a cotton cord. (Perhaps you can tell where my vote lay!)
Pickled preserves were held in special esteem in my growing-up household, and my wife’s New England genealogy fortunately was not only parallel, but only added some new dimensions to my own – much to the benefit of our offspring who carry on the tradition. In fact our extended family (now embracing 4 generations,) value one favorite above all others, and that is a version of Corn Relish which was born in our own Vermont kitchen nearly 50 years ago.
I was four years old when our family visited some old friends at their seaside cottage in South Carolina while we were breaking in my Dad’s brand new 1937 Oldsmobile. During our stay, I was often left in the care of the household Maid – a wonderful young black woman named “Dolly”- who became my constant companion as she went about her duties, one of which was preparing and putting up a batch of pickled watermelon rind. Somewhere we have an old photo of the two of us holding hands. Ever since that experience, putting up my own Watermelon Rind Pickles (a highly labor-intensive endeavor) is an almost spiritual experience for me every summer.
Among the extraordinary output of our old-time family pickling enterprise, I learned to love Pickled Beets and Onions, Green Tomato Piccalilli, Bread and Butter Chips and of course my father’s incomparable German-Style Dills. Since we always raised our own bed of dillweed, we also“dilled” Green Beans, Carrot Sticks, and Mixed Vegetables (cauliflower flowerets, whole pickling onions and tiny cucumbers.) There are so many ways of pickling cukes, from Mustard-flavored to Sweet Baby Gherkins, the variations are almost unlimited, and always worthwhile. I like to try something new each year.
I don’t have enough space to expand the subject matter to include Chutneys and Ketchups, but I must at least refer to the magic of Pickled Seckel Pears, Spiced Peaches and Apple Chow Chow to say nothing of the importance of sugars in producing such standbys as Mincemeat, Devilled Ham and other Potted meats. And I would be derelict if I failed to mention preserving with a salt and spice pickling brine; my perennial favorites being Corned Beef and Sauerkraut. (By the way if you add a smoking stage to a finished, black pepper-wrapped corned beef you can end up with an outstanding Pastrami!)
A display of pickles in a country Farmers’ Market suggests the almost limitless possibility for pickles and relishes to make the coldest winter tolerable. Al Cooper Photo