Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Making Pickles and Remembering Times With My Mother

Yesterday and today I made pickles. We don't eat that many pickles anymore since we are trying to watch our intake of sodium, but with so many cucumbers coming in now I just could not resist making them.

The smell of dill brought the memories back to me as if it were yesterday...

When I was a child growing up in Wisconsin, my mother made so many pickles it would take up an entire shelf in the basement, or cellar as we called it. She had the old black enamel turkey roaster and colorful Pyrex bowls full of small perfect cucumbers soaking in ice water. I think she soaked them overnight or maybe had this going for a few days while she added more cucumbers from the morning harvest.

We picked fresh dill with full heads in bloom, and had the pickling spices ready along with some fresh garlic and some small sections of cabbage. Yes, cabbage, I will get to that later.

The jars and lids were sterilized first and standing ready for the process to begin. She always had my sister and me stuffing the jars with the dill because our hands fit better through the opening. We then put in a small amount of the pickling spices, maybe 1/2 teaspoon, a piece of garlic and then began the task of putting the cucumbers in the jar. "Line them up now" my mother would say. You can't just stuff or toss them in the jars; there is an art to making the perfect jar of pickles. We lined up as many cucumbers as we could all around the inside edge of the jar, then we put one or two down the center; we then put another full stem of dill on top, and now the cabbage; just a small amount maybe just a leaf, folded then placed on top of the dill. Next step was to pour the hot vinegar solution into the jars. This solution was a mix of white vinegar, salt and water. Mother poured the hot pungent mixture in each jar. I always wanted to do this but understandably she would not take the risk of a possible burn on my sister or me. Now the final step, wipe each of the jar rims to make sure they were dry, then place the lid and the ring on the jar, tightening it just enough.

As the day progressed I remember hearing each one of those jars "POP" as the lid would be forced down from the cooling of the brine, sealing the jar. We would listen for each one so that we knew that they had all sealed. Then off to the cellar they went.

My father had built about six shelves against the old stone wall of the cellar which housed all of the wonderful foods my mother put up each summer. There were rows of jars of peaches, pears, berries, tomatoes, tomato juice, carrots, green beans, corn, beets, asparagus, yellow beans, and of course the wonderful pickles. Jars and jars of hamburger pickles, dill pickles, relishes, pickled crab apples. Jars of sauerkraut, greens of all sorts, canned meats like corned beef. There were small jars of every imaginable jelly and jams, marmalade and preserves.

Now our cellar was cool and damp. The walls were made of old stones, a part of the floor was concrete and a part of it was packed soil. On the soil area there lived two salamanders, we called them Sally and Sam. There was also a shower, without a curtain for privacy, a toilet without a door, and my mother’s washing machine, an old ringer type, all these were on the concrete side of the cellar, all just out in the open. And since we did not have a shower or a toilet upstairs we had to use the cellar for bathing, etc. When we were small, my mother would fill a galvanized tub for us to bathe in. My sister and I took a bath together first, then my younger brother would be put in the water after we were finished. Boys are always dirtier than girls, everyone knows that.

Sally and Sam were always in the cellar as I remember. There were old wood steps leading down, and a heavy wood door at the bottom that had one of those big spring hinges on it so it would close by itself. The bottom step was about 5 inches off the concrete floor, just enough so that you would wonder if Sally or Sam might just be hiding under that last step. You never knew where they would be, and being girls my sister and I were sort of afraid of them and the thought that they might be under the last step frightened us. Before we would enter the cellar, we swung the heavy wood door wide open, then jump out as far as we could before it came crashing back to close;  we would land as far away from the step as possible. You know just in case the salamanders might be hiding under the last step waiting for us to come down. I don’t remember them ever being under that step, but we always jumped.

Sally and Sam were harmless of course but now and then one or both of them would be on the concrete floor when we went down to use the bathroom, up the stairs we went to call mom to move them. Bravely she picked them up behind the neck, and moved them to the dirt area. When I say we, I am referring to my sister and me, we rarely went to the basement alone. Most often we went together and being small girls we could share the toilet at the same time, too. That meant we could get back up stairs faster and before Sally and Sam had a chance to get to the concrete floor.

Oh yes, the pickles. I got a little melancholy there for a moment. The best part of opening a jar of my mother’s pickles was being the first one to get a chance at the cabbage. I can’t explain the flavor but it is something between mild sauerkraut and a dill pickle. It is still very crunchy, not at all like sauerkraut, other than the vinegar, but the flavor of the dill is present along with the hint of juniper berries from the pickling spices. It is wonderful and a wonderful memory for me.

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