Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mom's Bread and Butter Pickles


My mom regularly canned food. There were three things that she always had on hand: strawberry jam, bread and butter pickles, and chile sauce. Whenever I  traveled to Central New York I would come home with a few jars of each to replenish my supplies. Since she died a few years ago I have had to find new sources for these favorites, or forgo them altogether.

The most popular by far was strawberry jam. Diane and I (mostly Diane, if truth be told) have been making strawberry jam now for several years. I think it is just as good as the jam that mom made. The sweet chile sauce is great with meat loaf. We have been able to get a reasonable version at the supermarket. The bread and butter pickles from the supermarket are good but they are not the same as those my mom made. I have been interested in trying to make these myself for several years. Fortunately we have her recipe but I never watched her make them and so I wasn't confident I could make them based on the instructions in the recipe alone.

 Two recent events changed this. First, a similar recipe was published on the Food Wishes blog which focuses more on teaching cooking methods than on recipes ... just the information that I felt I needed! Second, my sister Dena shared some notes that she made while watching my parents make these pickles. Late summer is the right time of year -- the store has the right kind of cucumbers -- I was confident that I knew what to do, and with Diane's help with the canning I was finally ready to give these a try.

I tried to learn more about the history of the recipe but without much success. I know that my mom's mother made these pickles before she did. Through my cousin, Carol, and her mom, my mother's older sister, Luella, I learned that the recipe is the same as the one my grandmother used but Luella didn't know where it came from.

Chef John suggested the recipe was developed during the Great Depression, when my mom was growing up, as a way to preserve extra cucumbers. Some Internet research bears this out though I didn't find anything definitive. There are several stories describing the origin of the name: it came from the simple sandwiches that would be made with the pickles, or they were considered a staple, like bread and butter, or it referred to the cash people would make selling the pickles.

My goal was to replicate the pickles that my mom made. I used the techniques demonstrated on the Food Wishes video and my mom's recipe augmented with Dena's notes. I made one intentional change to the recipe: 6 medium onions seemed like too many so I used just 3. I made one not-so-intentional change. I had too many cucumbers so I had to add more vinegar to cover the vegetables when cooking. I didn't add any additional sugar so the pickles are a little more sour than I remember. My mom sliced the cucumbers by hand but I used a mandolin and cut them 3/16-inch thick which seemed about right in the end. If I make these again I will probably try making them thicker and perhaps with a crinkle cut since that is easy to do with the mandolin.

I believe I succeeded, for the most part, in replicating my mom's pickles. The thickness and consistency seems right, the proportion of onions and peppers is right, and other than being a little more sour the flavor is also close to what I remember.

My parents were married for over 60 years and in those 60 years they worked together to can a lot of jam, chile sauce, and pickles. From Dena's notes:
After adding the mixture to cans, Mom sticks a butter knife in around the edges to "get the air bubbles out." Dad wipes the rim of the jar with a wet dishcloth and puts the lids on. After they're in jars with lids, Herbie put a dish towel on top to "keep them warm." Mom said it's best if they cool slowly and it keeps the draft from them.

I distinctly remember watching them do this together. It was like a dance.
I never watched this particular dance in person, but it is easy for me to imagine them working together in the kitchen of the home where we all grew up, part of the 60-year dance of their marriage. I am grateful that the dance goes on, not only in our memories but in the recipes we continue to use and the foods we continue to enjoy.

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