I come from a family of pickle lovers. I credit some of this to my Central European heritage. We are big on pork and pickled things and breads from rye to sweet.
But pickle-loving is as much nurture as nature. My father grew up just blocks from Panzer’s pickle plant on South Ann Street in Fells Point, where the sharp, vinegary scent of pickle brine hung in the air when production was in full swing. Perhaps this is what drew him and my grandmother to Broadway Market. My father still recalls the square boxes of mixed pickles and the paper cones of fresh sauerkraut my grandmother would buy from Panzer’s stall. And pickles were a big lure of the Corned Beef Row delis for my father. He remembers watching men in white aprons plunge their bare hands into barrels until the brine reached their elbows to pull out a kosher dill to go with his corned beef.
Perhaps this also accounts for my own childhood fascination with the white plastic barrels of kosher dills and globes of white onions that floated freely under translucent plastic lids at the local Giant deli counter. I imagined reaching through the liquid, its surface pebbled with mustard seeds, and grabbing a fat pickle. I never did. Instead, my good behavior was rewarded with a quarter slice, green, thin, and slippery, on its sheet of wax paper.
Regretfully, more of the pickles I’ve eaten have come from store-bought glass jars than barrels or home kitchens, so it came as a surprise to find out recently that we are also a family of pickle makers. Each of my grandmothers put up pickled goods during the summer. Busia, my father’s mother, packed cucumbers, salt, vinegar and fresh dill grown in a neighbor’s garden into a large crock she kept in her basement. Grandma, my mother’s mother, made bread and butter pickles, piccalilli relish, and chow-chow, the last recipe from the blue-edged pages of a Ball “Blue Book,” a 1941 booklet of recipes from the canning jar company. It called for four quarts of cabbage, two quarts of green tomatoes and a dozen each of onions, green and red peppers.
My relatives mostly abandoned their pickle-making careers as buying commercial pickles became easier and working the garden became more difficult, though I still remember my Aunt Helen’s bread and butter pickles— olive green flower-shaped slices of cucumbers tinged with turmeric-infused yellow— that were sweet up front, followed by a little tang and always crunchy. (They’re not unlike the recipe made by my husband’s cousin Diane, who keeps her sealed Mason jars in the dark, dirt-floor cellar of her Iowa farmhouse.) For years I’ve looked hungrily at recipes for all sorts of pickled things— carrots, string beans, watermelon rind— thinking, “someday,” but never eking out the time I thought I’d need to sterilize and seal glass jars, not to mention chop vegetables and cook up spicy brine. But after sampling some fabulous pickled string beans from a friend’s pantry, “someday” turned into now, and armed with Grandma’s Ball book, pages torn from magazines and Diane’s tan recipe card edged in pink country hearts and tulips, I considered my options. Should I go basic bread and butter, or exotic? Cucumbers or carrots? Sweet or spicy? I decided, in my enthusiasm, to try a little of each.
Pickling, for the uninitiated, is simpler than it looks. Sterilizing jars and lids takes only a run through the dishwater or a prolonged dip in a pot of boiling water, and “processing” or creating a canning seal becomes unnecessary if you keep your pickles in the refrigerator (though they won’t last as long as properly sealed jars will). You cut up your vegetables, cook up a brine that’s mostly sugar and white vinegar, put one, then the other into hot jars, cap and voilá, you’re done.
I went to town one afternoon, slicing carrots into sticks and drowning them in a brine spiked with ginger root and hot peppers. Kirby cucumbers married a harem of garlic and seeds— fennel, coriander, cumin and mustard. String beans stepped in for okra in a recipe that called for long strips of lemon zest. I lined up my finished products in the cellar fridge among the beer and tonic water and tasted them two weeks later.
The carrots were a brilliant, gingery, lip-tingling success. I was less pleased with the string beans— too lemony, and I wished I’d overcome my laziness and trimmed off the ends instead of convincing myself they looked “rustic.” The cucumbers were my husband’s favorite, spicy sour, with the sting of dried red chili pepper. All in all, not too bad an experiment. But I realized I missed something— sweetness— so I picked up the phone to call my sister-in-law in Iowa for our late mother-in-law’s beet pickle recipe.
The next day, as I eased the skins off the tiny beets I bought at the Burton family farm in Glen Arm, I thought about my brother-in-law’s splendid garden in Iowa, and the deliciously earthy beets we pull straight from his backyard. As I stirred together sugar, vinegar, cloves and cinnamon, I recalled my husband’s memories of his mother and aunt canning in their country kitchens on summer days. And as I poured the brine over hot jars of beets, I wondered what my Iowa mother-in-law would have made of her East Coast, city daughter-in-law, fingers stained magenta, glasses steamed and slipping down her nose, making her homestyle recipe. She’d think it was pretty sweet, I reckon.