The large white buckets were lined up around our kitchen filling in every available spot like a crowded parking lot. It was difficult to maneuver through the space without tripping over one. If a visitor happened to pick this day to drop by, upon first glance, they could only assume we were in the process of a major deep cleaning. We were definitely in a major process all right, but it had absolutely nothing to do with cleaning.
My mother, sister and I were making pickles. It was just one of the produce-filled days we endured during our summer break from school. We traded our books and pencils for industrial sized bowls, buckets and jars that had screw-on lids. For several weeks every summer, we would spend our days shelling peas, snapping beans, shucking corn, peeling tomatoes and putting up pickles. My sister and I looked upon this job as some sort of horrible torture to which we were unjustly sentenced. Green became the natural nail polish color for our sore fingers and it took forever to clean up all the tiny hair-like silks and splattered bits of corn from all over the kitchen.
I certainly enjoyed consuming the results. During the long, cold winter months when the earth was barren and we once again had our school books, a fresh vegetable dinner was hard to beat. Every eye of our stove had a pot simmering with something we had “put up” back in the summer. To make the meal complete, all we had to do was mix up some corn bread and pass the hot pepper sauce!
Of all the produce we put up, I was always fascinated that a plain old cucumber, with the help of some powdered lime, spices and sugar, could be transformed into a sweet and delicious pickle. I think one reason I was so amazed at the process of forcing a cucumber to become a pickle was that I hated cucumbers. To this day, I will not eat one. I can’t even stand to eat something that has even so much as sat next to a cucumber. It leaves a distinct trail of juice that overpowers anything in its path.
At each and every restaurant where I order a salad, the first thing out of my mouth is, “Does your salad have any cucumbers on it? If it does, I absolutely do not want any on mine!” Sometimes the waitress thinks she can fool me by simply raking them off back in the kitchen. But to a person who has participated in the act of slicing and dicing cucumbers that never works. Heaven forbid, some cucumbers get chopped into tiny pieces and hide from plain sight under innocent pieces of lettuce and terrified slices of tomatoes.
However, I have never met a pickle I didn’t adore. So why do I love pickles but can’t stand the vegetable from whence they come? That certainly has been a question that has not only haunted me over my lifetime, but also everyone around me. That’s just the way it is. I am a picky eater! Get this. I love tomatoes in any shape, form or fashion but despise ketchup! Go figure.
It is amazing how a certain shaped jar and a specific taste can conjure up a memory. The other day, that is exactly what happened to me. A lady dropped by my house to borrow some decorations and with her came a bag with two jars in it. As I glanced into the bag to see my gift, I was greeted by the all too familiar Ball jar logo printed on the top of a gold-colored, metal lid screwed tightly in place.
As I reached into the bag and picked it up, had I not already seen it, I would have clearly known what it was. There is something about the Ball jar’s shape with its raised glass logo that will always be etched in my mind. I was so excited! One jar was filed to the brim with pickles and the other one strawberry jam.
Brenda, the lady whose labor and love had produced these edible gifts, had already surprised me with something to eat on another occasion last fall. I was creating a wreath for an audience at Junior League of Macon’s Market Place and, much to my surprise Brenda came walking into the room with a pan of homemade cinnamon rolls. That was enough within itself to get my mouth watering, but what put me over the edge was the fact they were still warm!
So, I already knew this lady could cook but I wondered to myself, as I closed the door, if she could make great pickles. She had hardly backed out of my driveway before I heard the very distinct popping sound the metal lid makes as it is being unscrewed. I didn’t even take the time to get a fork. I broke all etiquette rules and stuck my fingers directly into the jar.
What I pulled out was a piece of my past. A piece I had not visited with in a very long time. I could tell just by the translucent coloration of the sticky pickle as it made its way from the Ball jar to my mouth that it was the exact kind we used to make all those years ago.
Several crunches and six pickle spears later, I was a little boy again who yearned for yesteryear! My memory served me well. I could still remember slicing the cucumbers and placing them in buckets, rinsing off the lime water several times, adding sugar and spices, boiling until the magic occurred and then filling the Ball jars and tightly screwing on their lids. We then wiped off the jars, sat them on a towel on a table and waited patiently to hear the little “ting” that assured us they were sealed.
Just like anything else we cook or create, it takes a labor of love to get from a raw fresh cucumber to a sweet and savory pickle. Maybe I owe the cucumber an apology. I know I owe Brenda a big thanks for helping recapture some special memories while enjoying her delicious creations. Go out and make something beautiful — and memorable — in someone’s life today!
MORE FROM MARK
Ÿ Check out Mark’s recently updated Web site, www.markballard.com, for current projects, recipes and lots of other fun stuff for summer! Ÿ Mark is on www.macon.com 24 hours a day! Videos, columns and articles are featured.
Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208,or call (478) 757-6877.