By Rachel Barduson
The pickle pages in my mom’s favorite recipe book are faded and stained, yet the memories of her sumptuous homemade pickles are as fresh as the morning sun.
Whether it was her homemade pickle relish...beet pickles or bread and butter pickles, my mom’s were the best. I’d bet there are hundreds of daughters and sons that feel the same way I do. Of course their mother made the best.
I observed as my mom stood over the stove stirring the brine as it came to a boil. I helped her peel and chop and stir. I watched as she sliced and soaked cucumbers in ice. I wondered what was soaking in the crock that was covered with a board in the basement. I noticed that it took a “three-days-or-more” procedure (it seemed) to make six-to-eight jars of every, and all, varieties of pickles. I remember the freshly-sealed jars lined up on the kitchen counter.
Mom’s pickles always turned out beautifully. They were tasty. They were crunchy. They were perfect.
Beet pickles, dill pickles, sweet pickles, watermelon pickles, refrigerator pickles, spiced little red apple pickles...every jar was perfect in taste, color and crunch. Most of what got pickled came from harvesting cucumbers from the neighbor’s bounty. Or, from the apples of our own trees. Or, from the watermelon rinds from the watermelons bought at Nelson’s Store. Or, from the beets that dad had planted out behind the woods.
Canning was a process that happened around mid-August, starting a few weeks before our first day of school, which began the day after Labor Day. We were guaranteed to have a delicious variety of pickles on our kitchen table by Thanksgiving but it was the fresh sweet bread and butter refrigerator pickles in late-August and early September that caught my taste buds in the early pickle season. They never made it to the pickling step where the jars were sealed. They soaked in the refrigerator and we ate them straight out of the bowl at every meal. At least I ate them at every meal. I might have even eaten them for breakfast, I loved them that much.
By the holidays and “church supper season” we enjoyed mom’s watermelon slices, beet pickles and spiced apple pickles at church dinners, right along with the bread and butter sweet pickles that were stored in sealed jars in a dark closet in our basement. Every pickle set out at church suppers by mom and the rest of the church ladies, were homemade. They were perfect with any kind of hotdish that they served during any potluck.
Lo and behold, before I knew it, I grew up and realized I should try making pickles. Just like my mother. I ventured out on my own to become a picklemaker. None of my batches turned out like my mother’s. Instead, I found myself literally in a pickle. The ones I made? They might have been pretty in my eyes, but they were not crisp, they were not crunchy and they certainly were not edible.
Memories of my pickles remind me of the Andy Griffith episode where Aunt Bee wanted to enter her pickles in the county fair in Mayberry and win a grand champion ribbon. Clara Johnson was the reigning pickle champion, having won the ribbon for 11 years in a row. Aunt Bee’s biggest motivation in winning was to take the crown away from Clara.
Before she could enter the contest however, Aunt Bee needed an honest opinion from Andy and Barney about her pickles. And so, wanting to help her out by giving her confidence, answering politely and telling her they were delicious, they soon found themselves in a pickle when they realized they couldn’t eat Aunt Bee’s pickles at all. Oh, they tried to eat Aunt Bee’s pickles at first, but she kept making more batches of pickles for them to taste-test. And, as she proudly made more batches, preparing for the county fair, Andy and Barney couldn’t keep up. That’s when they had to start dumping and refilling Aunt Bee’s emptied jars of homemade pickles with store-bought ones.
Of course, the whole plan to make Aunt Bee feel better about her pickles, and win a grand champion ribbon, completely backfired when they had to admit to Aunt Bee that her pickle entry at the county fair was really a jar of store-bought pickles.
I never got as far as entering any pickles at any county fair, but this is where my story does become a bit, let’s say, bittersweet.
When I decided to make pickles just like my mom, I made a trip to Ben Franklin and bought all of my canning supplies, the same kind mom used. I thought I’d start with a batch of dill pickles. I studied mom’s recipes, watched her, and got advice from her. I used her recipes. I did everything, just like mom. I bought the dill-weed. I pickled, boiled the brine and sealed the jars. I put them in the basement and thought that all of the jars lined up in the basement “pantry” were very pretty. Several months later it was time to open a jar of my pickles. They still looked fantastic, lined up on those shelves. Just like Aunt Bee, I had to have a taste-test. Unlike Andy and Barney, not one person sacrificed their life by eating even one entire pickle, let alone an entire jar. In my case, I was told they smelled like kerosene or turpentine. Or worse.
And so, what to do with 12 jars of dill pickles? I dumped them all out, just like Andy and Barney had to do with Aunt Bee’s second, third, fourth (and so on) batches of pickles. Just like Aunt Bee, I kept trying. And just like Andy and Barney, I dumped every single jar of pickles that I ever made (for a few years running). I finally had to admit that I was more “Aunt Bee” than I was my mother. I eventually took all of my supplies to a friend who would be able to re-use the canning supplies. I wished her luck. I hung my pickle apron on a hook and never looked back.
And so, as stories go, I find more of a story by reading my mother’s pickle recipes than I do in actually making pickles. I realized long ago that I would never be able to make a pickle like my mom, however, when I look at notes in her hand-writing...and re-imagine eating those pickles in the kitchen on the farm...well, it’s not such a bittersweet end to my pickle-making days. Instead, it’s actually a pretty tasty memory, and I don’t mind being in a pickle after all.