Food & Drink : I come from pickles

Brine runs in this family's blood

This is a story of wicked children and salty hobos, of near-ancient family feuds and erstwhile traditions. This is a story about pickles, and it’s mighty suspenseful. It takes only an hour or so to can a batch of pickles, but unlike the relatively instant gratification of pie or pot roast, one must wait at least two weeks for the gherkins to soak up that tangy brine. During that time, they are — if you believe the paranoid publishers of Joy of Cooking — as likely to spontaneously explode or cultivate clostridium botulinum spores as they are to pickle up crisp and piquant. Yet people in my family have been putting up pickles for generations and, so far, no one has died of toxic cucumber.

My great-great grandmother Mary Ann Needham canned pickles every summer and, according to family lore, her neighbors in Highland, Michigan, received them with such joy at Christmas that she convinced great-great grandpa William Needham to rename his vinegar factory Highland Pickle Works and produce pickles commercially. In 1921, their son Charles Needham took over, changing the name to Domestic Pickle Works, Mary-Art Brand. Thus, my grandmother Mary and her brother Arthur grew up in the pickle house. Or so I liked to imagine.

“Oh, no, just men worked in the pickle house, little girls were not allowed inside, even though Pa was always there,” Grandma explains, when I call to get a pickle recipe, her voice still tinged with sibling rivalry. “Of course, Art could go inside.”

(My mother remembers the pickle house as a scary place — rickety catwalks crisscrossing giant salt pools, and air that was almost too tangy with brine to breathe.

Great Grandpa was not above instilling a strong work ethic in both his children, however, and most summers he planted a cucumber patch next to the pickle house. The youngsters were to earn their school clothes by tending and harvesting gherkins, carting their wares to the factory in a red Radio Flyer right alongside the other farmers. Grandma says running up and down the rows in the hot sun cutting the prickly cucumbers off the vine was a hard, rashy business. Their only solace was disposing of any overgrown produce. “We’d sit on the banks of the railroad,” she says, “and throw these pun’kins — that’s what we called the big yellow ones — at the hobos. Sometimes they’d laugh and throw them back to us, and you can imagine the mess that made.

Genuine dill pickles

Place three heads of dill in the bottom of a half-gallon jar. Pack in the pickles.

5 pints water
2 pints white vinegar
1 c non-iodized salt

Heat solution to almost boiling and pour over pickles — add more dill on top. Seal and place in brown paper bag in one small red barn for a week. If a red barn is out of the question, a pail should do. After a week, refrigerate for 10 days.

“This was during the Depression,” Grandma adds. “The hobos were just nice young guys who couldn’t find work. Sometimes Pa would find one or two of them asleep in the salt bin, but they weren’t any trouble. He didn’t have room to hire them, but we’d give them something to eat.”

I would have chucked a cucumber at Central Market’s grocer if I’d seen her the other day; the store’s box of pickling cucumbers was a mish-mash of small, rotten-looking gherkins — sure to hollow in the brine — and huge, waxy cucumbers. Some recipes call for sliced cucumber, but avoid wax — it mucks up the brine, and scrubbing it off is no fun. That said, during the summer it’s generally possible to find fresh pickling cucumbers at the grocery store and local farmers markets.

Putting up pickles is a simple yet perilous process, and I highly recommend reading up on canning before attempting it. I looked at Joy of Cooking, which provides a compendious guide to preserving vegetables, fruit, and meats, along with quite a few recipes, and where I learned that even if you get the pickles into a jar without a hitch, you’re still not safe: Home cooks must look out for mold and tap their pickle lids. Beware the dull, hollow ring that signifies a broken seal, for spoiled canned products are so potentially lethal they should be tossed without tasting.

Now that I’ve scared you away from pickling forever, here are the basics: I used the vacuum-sealing jars. Purchased at the hardware store for a pittance, these are the kind that have the two-piece lids and self-seal as they cool. After sterilizing the lids and jars, I packed them while they were still hot with well-scrubbed gherkins and dill (see recipe below), added the hot brine, and sealed them up.

In order to “process” the pickles (kill off any bacteria), I set the jars on a rack inside a boiler half-filled with hot water, added enough water to cover the jars, and boiled them for 15 minutes. (While you’re at the hardware store, buy some jar tongs. Otherwise it’s truly difficult to get the jars out of the water without parboiling your hands and possibly your feet.) I lost one jar of pickles to the boiler: She started bubbling mid-processing — a sure sign of a breach — and, according to Joy, there was nothing to be done. “Oh, honey, that’s nothing,” says Grandma. She and Art once spoiled an entire vat of sweet-pickle gherkins, which, due to their diminutive size, were the most sought-after and expensive.

As Grandma tells it, after the pint-size farmers brought their gherkins into the factory to be sorted and weighed, they were supposed to wheel them out behind the Pickle Works. Uncle Art would stand on the wagon and Grandma would boost him up so he could dump the pickles in a great big puncheon of vinegar. Apparently, she didn’t know her own strength.

“Some fellow came out of the pickle house, and there was Arthur in the pickle barrel,” Grandma says, “and that nasty, nasty man went in and told our pa. Well, that was the end of our pickles and we didn’t get any money for our school clothes.”

The Domestic Pickle Works closed sometime in the 1960s; Uncle Art worked in the pickle house after World War II, but he and his father made poor business partners, and in the end not even a single recipe was saved. It’s possible my great grandfather kept the recipes to himself for competitive reasons. After all, he wasn’t the only pickle baron in Highland; his brother owned a pickle factory cleverly named U-Need-Um. “Competitors? Oh, sure, they were always fighting,” Grandma says, “but Pa’s pickles were always better than Uncle Bill’s.”

So how is it, then, that I sit here waiting with bated breath and intense nostalgia to see if I created the family pickles or briney weapons of mass destruction? The recipe comes from my Aunt Jane and is based on Uncle Art’s memories of the old Mary-Art Brand. Apparently, pickle brine runs in the blood.

“To this day I can’t find a pickle that tastes like it should,” says Grandma, “’cept if Art brings me a jar now and then.”