Today is pickle making day. My wife and I have no idea what we are doing, but we are determined to recreate the wonder of pickles that came out of my Mama’s kitchen. Sweet pickles and pickled peaches have never been the same since she passed.
One of the things you do when your folks move on to the land beyond the Jordan is you spend endless hours going through all the contents of the house in which you grew up looking at the stuff your parents accumulated over 67 years of marriage. My Mama accumulated exactly 4,132 Mason jars of groceries that she stored up for the days ahead, but which got left behind for us to sort out.
There was a near endless supply of green beans, Kentucky Wonders to be exact, some with the year 1992 scribbled on the lid in black marker. This was 2013. Tomatoes, some of them brown. Blackberry jelly, which was perfect. Plum jelly. Fig preserves. I was set for breakfast for years to come.
What I admired most was the pickles. Sweet pickled cucumbers with just enough sour to turn your earlobes on end, and just enough sweet to make you want to sit and eat the entire jar. My wife once said, “Tuna salad without your Mama’s pickles isn’t fit to eat.” We both loved her pickles.
It was a sad, sad day several years back when we opened her last jar of pickles. We were making Tuna salad; one of our simple dishes with either Saltine or Ritz Crackers. We tried to use it slowly so it wouldn’t run out, but eventually we spooned out the last pickle. It was worse than watching your last child leave home. There’s a 50/50 chance the child will come back. The pickles were gone forever.
I have thought to myself a thousand times that I should have paid more attention to the details of pickle making in her kitchen. I paid attention to making biscuits. I paid attention to making gravy. I know how to make pancakes. But I forgot to pay attention to the pickle making. I could slap myself.
After that last jar was gone, we searched high and low for a substitute. We had well-intentioned neighbors who gave us pickles. We bought pickles from the store. We followed leads on pickles that kept leading us into dead ends. A roadside stand up in the North GA mountains. Packing houses from Fort Valley to Valdosta. Alabama. North Carolina. Florida. Kentucky. We were willing to go anywhere to find the right pickle.
None of them could hold a candle to the pickle we knew to be the best pickle on earth. My Mama’s pickle. We grieved the day the last pickle disappeared. We slowly began to accept an empty and pickle-less life. We just plain gave up.
This is what happens when you lose something. You look everywhere, and right after you quit looking, you find it. It works for car keys, and old letters, and pickles.
A few years ago, Beth and I took a trip to historic Williamsburg, VA. Not in search of pickles, but in search of history and celebration. It was her birthday trip. Our second night there we ate supper at the Tavern. The entire experience was just first class.
Our waitress took our order and shortly after brought us a few dishes of things to try.
“These are some of the old recipes from Colonial days. It’s a great way to get into the spirit of your visit here at the Tavern. I especially like the pickles. You’ll want to try those for sure.”
My eyes lit up. “Pickles? Did you say pickles?”
“Yes sir. This dish here is pickled watermelon rind. At first it tastes a little sour, but then the sweet takes over and it is just so delicious.” She whirled and left.
I looked at Beth. She stared down at this little dish and looked back at me.
“You think . . ?”
“Well, I don’t know. Could be.”
“What do you suppose ….?”
“Not sure. You try it.”
“Looks like a pickle.”
“She said sour then sweet.”
“I heard that, too.”
The moment I popped the first bite into my mouth I knew that my prayers had been answered. Lawd, have mercy! I was taken back 40 years, sitting at my Mama’s kitchen table eating her pickles again. I’m pretty sure I had to wipe my eyes. We ate the entire bowl and asked for more.
I called the waitress over. She could tell I was emotional. “Do you think that there is any way the Chef would share this recipe with me?” Long pause of confused stare. “You see, I’ve been looking for this pickle for the last 10 years. This is my Mama’s pickle, and I have to have this recipe.”
She left and came back to the table a while later. She said that the kitchen staff would be glad to send me the recipe. I was ecstatic. I wrote down my email address on a card and gave it to her. Weeks went by, and nothing came. I was determined
I called Williamsburg on the phone one day. I must have talked to 5 people all who wanted to pass me along to someone else who could help me. I finally got this one sweet woman who could tell that I was having a nervous breakdown and promised she could help me.
“I’ll go over to the Tavern myself and talk to them. I’ll personally put your request in their hands.” God does send his angels in a man’s time of need.
A couple of weeks went by. I was starting to give up hope again. I had “the pickle” in my grasp and in my mouth, and now I’ve let it get away again. I thought about driving up to Williamsburg myself. I was a desperate man. I was this close, and I just couldn’t turn it off.
Then, one day, I got an email from a Thomas Parris, Williamsburg, VA. The subject line read “Pickled Watermelon Rind Recipe”, and I almost jumped out of my skin.
So, we are in the kitchen. We are peeling green skin with a potato peeler. Cutting watermelon rind into small cubes. Jars and lids are sitting in hot water on the stove. The vinegar and sugar and spice brew is heating up. I am giddy with excitement. An old man almost dancing in the kitchen. A whistle on my lips.
I know we have no idea what we are doing. I don’t care. We’re having fun doing it. If we can’t get it right the first try. We’ll try again. If that fails. We’ll drive back to Williamsburg for advice. Maybe we can get Thomas on the phone.
I’m sorry it’s been such a tough year. A lot of worry. A lot of fear. A lot of uncertainty.
But not today. Today is solid. Today is unbeatable. Today we’re making pickles.