It’s a little early for pickle recipes, but not if you’re the Procrastination Queen of America. If you’re the PQOA, the best time to have started is 10 years ago and the second best time is now.
In fact, I have been trying to make a Bob’s Little Acre column out of my late mother-in-law’s refrigerator bread-and-butter pickle recipe for about as long as there has been a Bob’s Little Acre, which is roughly equivalent to the time my mother-in-law has been “late.” The recipe never made it into a Bob but now it strikes me as more suitable for a food column anyway, so here goes.
Mama Wallace had clipped the recipe from a magazine and she wrote it out for me by hand in her elegant cursive—her son I married is an artist and I could tell where he got his hand-to-eye—and I pasted it into a notebook back around the dawn of time, maybe 1989 or ‘90.
I’d make the pickles every year and they got kind of famous among my little circle, so I passed the recipe on quite a few times myself. Meanwhile the Internet came into its own so instead of copying it by hand or typing it or Xeroxing it, I was transmitting it out through cyberspace. One year somebody asked for it and I had started to type when I remembered I had emailed it to somebody else a couple of years before, so it was a matter of going through my electronic outbox and retrieving it.
I wanted to write about the recipe because I was struck first of all by the poignancy of making pickles from directions hand-copied by a now-dead cook from a long-yellowed magazine to deal with a long-ago crop—it’s preserving lore about preserving food and that’s just for starters—and secondly by the way the recipe’s transmission had evolved to reflect the changing times.
Writing things down once revolutionized not just cooking but, like, everything. Not only did it enable younger cooks to make pickles exactly like Mama Wallace, it also facilitated history, science, education, religion, mathematics, dot dot dot. Then writing led to typing which led to word-processing and now things have evolved to the point there are people who can’t even read cursive, and I realized recently with a jolt that I wouldn’t recognize my best friend’s handwriting.
For the past, what, 10? 20? years, even personal communication has been mostly electronic. When is the last time you sent a letter through the mail? Even grocery lists these days I tend to text to my husband, and to myself, too, on the principle we hold onto our cellphones better than we do those envelope backs or sheets of notepaper.
Anyway, let’s pause for a distraction for just a minute, to wit, the recipe. It seems only appropriate since it has gone from print to handwriting to email that it should now be published in an online newspaper.
My late mother-in-law was Fenella Wallace of Macon, Ga. I type her recipe here just as she wrote it:
8-12 cucumbers (unpeeled)
1 med. onion for ea. jar
4 C. sugar
4 C. vinegar
½ C. salt
1 1/3 tbs. celery seed (or as desired)
1 ½ tbs turmeric
1 1/3 tbs. mustard seed (more or less)
Slice cucumbers in jar. Add onion. Mix remainder of ing. cold. Pour mixture over cucumbers and onion in jar; fill to 1/8 in. of top. Screw lid on tightly. No seal required. Place in refrigerator. Let stand 5 days before serving. Will keep for a year, but don’t make too many. They take up room in ref.
Now. Since the time of the refrigerator pickles, I evolved, too, or anyway my tastes did. I had always been crazy about those hot garlicky kosher dills, and then a few years ago the makers of “Wickles” did the same thing for bread-and-butter pickles. God, I love Wickles! Have you tried them? They’re sweet like regular b&bs but “wicked” enough with hot peppers to bite a girl back.
After sampling the thrills of Wickles I was unable to go back to Mama Wallace’s plain old Southern Baptist pickles. So I began trying to subvert her recipe into evil ways, adding hot peppers from my garden to the cold brine. It didn’t work. The peppers and cucumbers just sat there in the jar not mingling, as if they were on a blind date and didn’t like each other.
Then one summer my Rising Fawn neighbor Fancher made a perfect batch of Wickle near-twins—Twickles?—and when I had carried on long about them, she let me in on the secret, which I share here with you:
You start by using the b&b recipe from the Clemson University Extension website:
6 pounds of 4- to 5-inch pickling cucumbers
8 cups thinly sliced onions (about 3 pounds)
½ cup canning or pickling salt
4 cups vinegar (5 percent)
4½ cups sugar
2 tablespoons mustard seed
1½ tablespoons celery seed
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
Yield: About 8 pints
Preparation: Wash cucumbers. Cut 1/16-inch slices off blossom ends and discard. Cut into 3/16-inch slices. Combine cucumbers and onions in a large bowl. Add salt. Cover with 2 inches crushed or cubed ice. Refrigerate three to four hours, adding more ice as needed.
To Make Pickles: Add sugar and remaining ingredients in a large pot. Boil 10 minutes. Add well-drained cucumbers and onions and slowly reheat to boiling. Fill jars with slices and cooking syrup, leaving ½-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and wipe jar rims. Adjust lids and process pints or quarts for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
But you vary it by (a) cutting the pickles on the thick side, maybe a little more than half an inch instead of a little less, and (b) adding as many peppers of as hot a nature as you think you will like. Try cayennes and go from there.
The first batch I made turned out as bland as the refrigerator pickles. I had labeled the jars something like Robin’s Bad-Ass Evil Drop-Dead Pickles, but in fact after I tasted them I renamed them “Church Picnickles.”
I told Fancher and she told me where I’d gone wrong: I’d put the peppers cold in the jars and added the boiling brine with the cucumber slices on top. What I figured was it would be too much trouble to fish peppers out of the brine so there would be two to each jar or whatever. But she told me you had to boil the peppers in with the rest of the mixture, and that’s what I tried next.
That second batch I labeled “I Mean It This Time!” But I’d wasted the name because they still weren’t hot enough. They were nowhere near Wickle, maybe just a little Naughticle, or really no worse than Well-Intentionicle but Unrulicle.
So I increased the peppers and I’m happy to tell you the third time was the charm. Since then I’ve enjoyed labeling each jar with a different boast-slash-warning:
“I’m Not Making This Up”;
“Ain’t Whistlin’ Dixie”;
“I Killed a Man in Texas Just to See Him Die.”
The secret is to be a little extravagant with the peppers, maybe three or four to a jar instead of just two, and, as previously noted, to boil them in the brine. I vary the kind of pepper I use but I’ve never tried anything as hot as a habanero. I think that would be a little much even for the likes of me.
These pickles get hotter the longer they sit but that’s not a problem in my house because they never sit that long. I like giving them away to people who appreciate them, but last summer I realized I was eating a pint every time I opened one so I had to stop sharing them or I’d run out. I ran out anyway.
Greed and gluttony are two of the seven deadly sins so I reckoned I had finally made a pickle that was truly wicked. The taste has led me yet further into iniquity and this year I have planted three long rows of cucumbers.
Anyway! My pickle-making lore has gone from handwriting on a notebook page to email to a column in a cyber-rag. It would tickle me pink if you continue the tradition by saving my recipes in your I-phone.