At one time when our family was still young and all together, I had Sunday responsibilities which required my attendance with a congregation many miles away from our residence in Vermont’s beautiful and remote “Northeast Kingdom”. Our home was situated a matter of 500 yards from Canada with the international boundary actually dividing our public library in half (marked by a white painted line!) The congregation I mention had ecclesiastical boundaries which drew members from Vermont, New Hampshire and a corner of Maine and everything about my duties posed unique challenges, including a 100+ mile round trip on sometimes-unplowed country roads in winter.
In addition to the hundreds of miles of old stone walls, rolling green pastureland and century-old barns, part of the journey’s charm lay in the occasional roadside garden-stands, usually unattended but with a cigar-box “cash register” and a latent belief in human honesty. Sometimes we stopped to investigate or more often to give our four restless kids a chance to vent their boredom. On one such autumn occasion I became fascinated with a Ball pint jar of colorful preserves hand-labeled as Old Fashion Corn Relish. Always on the lookout for something which excited my love for anything home-made and evocative of the tradition of farm-and-home gardening and self-reliance, we drove away from that nameless and unremarked farm-stand on that long-ago random and unrecorded Sunday with a discovery which would eventually touch and bring delight to (to date) three generations and more of our expanding family.
After that first family dinner of roast beef mashed potatoes and gravy with that jar of relish at the table’s center, we knew we had found something special. Always thinking of myself as a “kitchen scientist” at heart, I immediately began the process of reverse-engineering, carefully sorting through the obvious ingredients: tender fresh corn, onions, red pepper, green pepper, vinegar and sugar (probably both white and brown,) an unknown combination and amount of spices and . . . a touch of magic.
The experiment continued over a period of several years of autumn harvests and kitchen trials, Shirley and I altering ingredient quantities, new spice combinations and cooking technology, my elderly mother sitting at the kitchen table and keeping meticulous notes. Each year we turned out jars of excellent and satisfying relishes; but never a match for the el primo status we were seeking. Something elemental was missing.
Another such story has its roots in a long-ago family vacation spent at the seaside cottage of old family friends who summered each year at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We were “breaking in” our new family car, a long black 1937 8-cylinder Oldsmobile. I was 4 years old and was often left in the care of the family maid, a young African-American woman named Dolly whom I followed hand-in-hand wherever she went. Water melons were in great abundance at that time and place and I was curious to note that Dolly carefully set aside the accumulating rinds in a large tin basin. I later watched as she trimmed off the outer green skin turning the soft still pink under-flesh into small cubes which – brined -- emerged from slow cooking in sweet vinegar as a tantalizing, candy-like table pickle. Water Melon Rind Pickles have been a favorite ever since. Three decades later in a Vermont kitchen, inspiration led me to add a cup of those glowing yellow pickles, now minced small, to our ongoing corn relish experiment. VOILA! After that impromptu “wedding” our final miracle relish was complete.I believe that all of life is made up of stories. Tiny stories, perhaps; but stories just the same. Beside me here as I write is a 79-year-old much-faded photo of a small white boy beside a young black girl as proof.