Issue 28

Pickle or Die

Pickle or Die

Long ago, people ate what they grew, and grew what they ate. If they couldn’t gather or grow it, so it is said, they didn’t eat it. If they didn’t eat, they died, so they stayed busy. If they caught a fish, they had to skin and cook it. If they killed a deer… well, anyway.

If there were thousands of blueberries, they had to eat them all at once even though their tongues were black and they were sick to death of fruit. Then one day, someone (an Egyptian or Chinese person probably, since they had lots of it) took the time to invent canning.

Then they could eat blueberries whenever they felt like it.

We planted a small pear tree in my front yard. The first five years it bloomed and rewarded us with misshapen green blobs the size of shrunken kiwifruit. Then the sixth year we got small, tasty pears – laundry baskets full of them. We ate pears, poached pears, pear breads and muffins, and gave away sacks of pears.

Last year – year seven – brought us avalanches of large, tasty, firm pears… hundreds of them from that one tree, plopping into the street and rolling into neighbors’ driveways, clogging the cul-de-sac’s street drain. I made and canned pear butter, but one can only make and eat so much pear butter in a lifetime. This will be year eight, and I watch each fist-sized green oval growing, ripening, and longing to roll rampant. As I picture the laundry baskets brimming with pears, I shudder.

If you are overwhelmed by produce, are on the receiving end of a prodigious garden or growing co-op, or you have a neighbor who is generous to a fault with his zucchinis and cukes, then truly you have only one way to save yourself: You must pickle – but not hastily.

Pickling is an act that requires the deliberation, forethought and redirection of a magician’s water-tank-immersion escape trick. Then, like David Blaine strapped into a sunken half-box freezer, you must work magic of the most banal and ordinary sort. Nonetheless, like a stage magician, crowds will be gobsmacked at what you know to be quite simple, once you know the trick behind it.

Now there is preservation – and then there is canning. Preservation runs a huge gamut from brining and smoking (yummy), to formaldehyde injection (definitely not yummy), to food caches of the Arctic peoples who buried and mummified their roots, berries and caribou in a subterranean permafrost freezer (passably edible). Here we shall deal with what is known non-eponomously as canning which derives from an old Germanic word Kanne (from the 1933 OED) meaning, “metal container for liquid.” It is not called jarring – which sounds unpleasant – but canning (even though it now involves preserving food in jars rather than cans).

More on cans in a moment. You might be wondering how not to kill the ones for whom you can. Lovers of food safety history know that the evil bacterium which causes botulism wasn’t quite choked out unless cooked to a right old boil at 250 degrees. Even in an anaerobic environment, such as a sealed can, deathly toxins could thrive like bad internet memes. Modern canning practices are much improved and safe as houses even though historically, housewives may have been like the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland, having often “believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. They knew how to can without poisoning people.

My 1889 copy of The White House Cookbook by Hugo Zeimann (Steward of the White House) and Mrs. F.L. Gillette (celebrated housewife) devotes three entire chapters to preserving, one of those solely to pickles. It offers this wisdom: “In putting away pickles, use stone or glass jars; the glazing on common earthenware is rendered injurious by the action of the vinegar.” Heaven knows what Mrs. Gillette meant by “rendered injurious,” since pasteurization was not made common in the US until the 1930’s, but we will give her the benefit of the doubt and say that at least she knew to sterilize and boil, and also not to put acid in constant contact with metal (it eats through the metal—the reason you see coatings on the inside of canned acidic foods like tomatoes.)

It is this acid in the vinegar solution which is then mixed with brine (salt, sugar, and water, usually equal parts) to steep or pour over vegetables or fruits to make a pickle. The White House reckons that with a little spice (such as turmeric, dill, garlic, cinnamon) and some fresh piles of veggies, one can produce serviceable pickled cucumbers (or just pickles, as we call them) and pickled cauliflower, mushrooms, green tomatoes, cabbage, okra, mango, plumbs, grapes and oysters, as well as mixtures known as chow-chow, piccalilli and Indian pickle.

Let’s not stop there. For those of you with pears, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, zucchinis, corn or musk melons, you can really pickle anything. A good first step toward canning is reading. A second baby step is parking yourself in front of the canning supplies at your local cheapo-mart and staring long and hard at the actual hardware. Don’t be frightened though, if Mrs. Gillette and your grandmother could do it, so can you. Not to underestimate your granny, but honestly, how was she with a smart phone?

You’ll also need vinegar (white or cider), which will lead you to something like a very simple recipe (along the same lines of the ingredients needed for making tea). Acidity levels inside the closed jars is important, and online resources are a click away if you want to know the starting-out acid levels of various foods and fruits. Vinegar, while it may seem obvious, is acidic and inhibits bacterial growth, and so vinegar recipes don’t require added acid or the full-metal-jacket protection that pressure canning (or home-pasteurization) will give you. Read a few blogs and you will see an agreement to disagree on whether tomatoes have enough acid to safely can without vinegar or need added acids like lemon juice or powdered citric acids (all usually found near the canning hardware).

You need jars and jar lids (duh!), and yes – you do actually have to boil them to sterilize them; they are probably sterile already, but do it anyway. Then, prep your pears – or whatever – by slicing, chopping or coring. Afterwards, put on a saucepan of water and add the same amount of vinegar, water, salt, sugar and whatever spices you would care to.

You can taste this mixture, and if the final canned outcome seems too hard to gauge, simply make a little two cup batch of your liquid, heat it to just under boiling, pour it into a glass bowl containing your prepped and chopped produce and let it steep in the fridge for a night. Taste and adjust. In fact, this is how my grandmother made “refrigerator pickles,” which are made with sliced and peeled cucumbers, a few pieces of sliced onion and a garlic clove, some chopped dill, and the brine I spoke of. If you like it a little sweet, add more sugar. If not, add less.

There are other ways to produce acidity without vinegar, which is a fermented product. If you can get fermentation going with the addition of a brine and a good bacteria culture, then the fermenting process will (like yeast multiplying in bread, eating sugars and making carbon-dioxide) break down the sugars in the food into lactic acid. While not the same as lactose in milk, this acid will be sour and will provide a pickle of sorts.

This is the way kimchi is made, and various Japanese pickles have, for years, been packed in the lees from wine (like vinegar, only this was rice wine) or in miso, a fermented soy product. I have made Thai-style pickles by putting chopped, drained cukes into peanut butter with turmeric. Sounds disgusting, but it is really good. Most of us are comfortable with the taste and texture of plain vinegar brine, and that is as easy as pie – easier, I’d say.

If you want to pickle and provide gifts for the people who’ve been generous with you all year, you will need the jars, lids, a giant multi-quart stock-pot or lidded casserole, towels, tongs (those grippy ones for jars are actually very handy—it’s like they are designed to lift jars out of boiling water or something) and some counter (or floor) space. You can get a little round metal grill or grate to place in the bottom of your pot so your jars are set up away from the direct heat and will not shatter. But that’s another over-engineering precaution.

The only real difficulty in pickling is making everything come together all at once. It usually goes something like this: 1) Boil and dry jars: check. 2) Core and peel canning vegetable or fruit: check. 3) Heat up pickling brine: check. 4) Line up jars: check. 5) Fill jars with fruit or vegetable: check. 6) Pour brine over jars to cover fruit or vegetable: check. Run out of brine or fruit and repeat step 2 or 3: check.

Now that you’ve captured everything in those cute little jars, it’s time to seal them. Oh? Did you think you were finished? Hey, put that phone down. No more coffee for you, and the dog can wait. Hustle everyone back out of the kitchen: “What do you mean you’re hungry again? You just ate breakfast! Oh, yes, well I see that it is 2 pm…. Have some dry cereal and get out, I’m canning so we’ll have good food to eat!”

Looking back, I understand why my grandfather disappeared when the jar lids came out and didn’t show his face again until the whole garden was tucked into the dusted shelves of the storage room. When my grandmother started canning, you couldn’t hear yourself think over all the box fans and furiously boiling water and clinking. The birds flew away, the silent carport baked in the heat and we grandchildren sought refuge in the quiet air-conditioned public library.

Woe betides anyone who happened back too early. The destruction in the kitchen was like the Tunguska explosion, with my grandmother in the molten center without a drop of sweat, but an apocalyptic gleam in her blue eyes. We’d back out slowly. “Oh! I forgot my library book! The one on clinical indications for conjunctivitis!” But she wasn’t listening to me, she was listening for the little “Thoink” sound that the lids on the jars make when the heat outside the jar has been greater than that inside, and upon cooling, forms a vacuum inside, causing the jar lid (which is engineered for just such a thermal transfer miracle) to indent.

I hope that canning day at our house is less hectic, or at least more fun than it was at my grandmother’s. For one thing, my family’s livelihood doesn’t depend on what I can and we do it because it is fun. After we’ve filled and screwed on the lids to all the submerged pickles, we lower the jars into the big honking pot of gently boiling water and time it accordingly. The little “thoink” usually takes a bit of sitting on a thick towel on the floor. All over the house, you can hear the little jars going off like culinary fireworks. We all pause and yell, “Opa!” and grin like idiots and go back to enjoying what’s left of the summer.

Here’s a recipe I tested on store-bought pears in preparation for this year’s bounty, and it is lovely. Salvation!

 

Pear Pickles

6 lbs. cored pears, sliced into wedges (like pickle spears)

1 ½ c. cider vinegar

1 ½ c. white or red wine (red makes pink pickles)

3 c. water

6 tsp. pickling salt (or coarse salt with no iodine)

6 tbsp. sugar

2 tsp. whole cloves

1 tbsp. black peppercorns

12 mini-sprigs rosemary

Combine wine, vinegar, water, salt and sugar and bring to a boil. Turn off heat. Place one rosemary sprig, a clove or two and a peppercorn or two into each jar and pack pear wedges on top. Pour brine slowly into the jars. Use a wooden chopstick to remove the air bubbles and add a bit more brine if needed. Wipe rims, apply simmered lids and screw on lid bands.

Time in boiling water for 10 minutes. Then remove jars from canner and let cool, undisturbed on a towel-covered flat surface. When jars are completely cool, remove rings and test seals by grasping the edges of the lid and lifting the jar. If the lids hold fast, the seal is good.

Store in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Pickles are good to eat after one week of curing.

And so, as my family drifts off to sleep at night, I imagine we are all having visions, not of sugar-plumbs, but of pickled plums, and pears, and okra. And when the Nebraska snow is thick on the ground, we will open these little packages of summer with some hot bread and hard cheese and think, “Boy, canning wasn’t so much work, now was it?”

Ann Summers

Ann Summers

Ann Summers is not a 40-umpthing-year old rock climber who got shut down in Boulder Canyon and drowned her failure in a microbrewery. She is neither a mother of two, a fan of Latin plant names nor a lover of fine Italian Grappa. You’ll not catch her shooting guns for fun or hollering like a redneck. She hates Shakespeare, and doesn’t call a certain fast food chain “The Scottish Restaurant.” She turns her nose up at organic yellow beets, eschews fresh oysters, and loathes chubby guinea pigs with Violent Femmes hairdos. She is also a dreadful liar


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