Friday, July 24, 2009


And of the dills, Alice’s comment yesterday reminded me of my Daddy’s inclination to go grab a quart of something off the pantry shelf, pour himself a five-o’clock Scotch, and head for the patio with a little cocktail fork in his hand.

We’d sit in adjoining chairs, me with iced tea, and poke around in the jar, finding just the right bite---small cucumbers, a cluster of golden-turned cauliflower with the salty brine shaking from its tips, even a whole clove of garlic, which he’d crunch between his molars like a lifesaver.

Sips and crunches, a trip back into the house for a drink refill and a longer fork, and so we’d sit, discussing everything, or nothing. When we’d had enough of the saline stew and had solved all the world’s problems, he’d dash the leftover juice into the viburnums with a flick of that steel-strong wrist, and we’d go in to see about supper.

Now, 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.

Hours in a clear-water soak, then 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 almost transparent and heavenly crisp, snapping in your mouth like a slice of fresh carrot, but tooth-aching 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. Bread-and-butters and squash pickles were prepared alike: slices layered with salt to sit overnight, then rinsed, sugar/vinegar/watered, and cooked off with red bell pepper, sliced onions, and a freckling of mustard seed in the clear, sweetish juice.

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 you like to see cuddled in an expensive wineglass.

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 deep Welch’s. 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---they picked so long as I told fairy tales and recited poetry---and w
e picked bushel after bushel, to stories and tales, quatrains and couplets; the Odyssey was popular, with all the swashbuckling and mythical creatures. Chaucer was cleaned up as nearly as a Mississippi Mama could make it, with The Miller’s Tale whitewashed into a funny story, with the tamed-down denouement featuring “hitting with a stick.” Still, we practically rolled on the ground amidst the peavines. Six and eight-year old boys find any kind of bottom-swatting hilarious.

The children faithfully chose only the ready-to-pick vegetables, and it's odd that the only one not to keep the faith is the one who helps make 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 held 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-boulders disaster in The Long, Long Trailer, a memorable Mayberry involving a midnight refrigerator raid---"AHHH, Peee-kless", and of course,
The Kerosene Pickles.

And while Aunt Bee whips up another batch, moire non.


Nail said...

Talk about taking me back! I remember our house always having the faint smell of vinegar through September...To show you how much this is in our DNA, one Thanksgiving your nephew Matt had to work until 4:00pm and we offered to save him a plate. Oh NO, he said, Thanksgiving isn't about turkey and dressing, it's about all the little pickles and beets and olive things that are out to enjoy! Alas, we waited...

racheld said...

AWWWWW, that sweet Boy!!! He's never lived a minute in Mississippi, and he's a G.R.I.T.S. Guy through and through!!

Mother and Daddy DID set out a fabulous "green plate" didn't they?