My friend Molly at Molly's Country Memories has been putting up tomatoes, and just the sight of those deep-red globes in the jars, shining in the light of a Mississippi kitchen afternoon, kindled a longing to get out kettles and Masons and tinkly brass ring-tops and CAN something.
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, with 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 -- I can see Miss Grace Church, an upright and sedate lady, taking care of her Daddy in his declining years, clinging to her standards, dressing demurely and singing in the choir and bringing her special casserole to Church Suppers, along with a jar of those incomparable pickles. She'd have beaten out Aunt Bee by a mile at the Fair, and whisked the blue ribbon out of Miss Clara's hands, as well.
Grace Churches were brought out for occasions, for the afternoon meetings of the Missionary Society or WMU, placed on that Damask-draped table alongside the crustless Paminna Cheese sandwiches and the quivery round of aspic. I do believe that more ladies than gentlemen must have consumed these, given the import and the rarity of the ceremonious opening of a jar. They were for dainty occasions, somehow---cut glass compotes and divided pickle dishes saved for special were set down laden with the dripping, spicy slices or the tiniest fingerlings saved up for days in the fridge bin to make a pint or two.
I well remember one such pint, the tiniest cucumbers from our garden, one pint that I painstakingly scrubbed each and every tiny spine from the little fellows, and then picked them all out of the final rinsing by hand, from their mingling with all those slices. Mother even cooked them in a separate pan of juice, calling them "my" pickles. I'd look at that pint jar, and even at six, I felt the swell of pride in a job well done, because I had had a hand in the process. And one afternoon while I was at school, the Missionary Society met at our house and my pickles were eaten up, every one, by those ladies in hats. I wish I could have tasted just one.
I also realize Mother's pride in setting down such a lavish dish with all its fiddly preparation and rare cornichon-sized bites.
Those jars were always given the place of honor, polished and gleaming, right in the glare of the single bare light bulb that dangled in every 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. The wait for these was not long, but they DID have to have six weeks or so to season and soak up all the salty, vinegary taste of real old-fashioned Southern dills. They're not like deli dills, with the flavor halfway between cuke and pickle; the Southern dill is an all-the-way-through deep green, all of its cucumber self sacrificed to the honor of its calling. Those are pickles with authority, pickles with character, pickles with VERVE.
My tongue's aching just typing about it. I think I'll go raid the pickle shelf of the fridge for a big ole salty dill right now.
And as with the bounty of Summer gardens, there's more to come---tomorrow.