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Brent Olson: Pickles

Agriculture.com Staff 08/19/2010 @ 8:18am

My pickles sealed.

Okay, I don’t know exactly what that means, but it’s apparently a good thing.

I’m new to the pickle biz.  I’ve always been a fan of consuming them, but pickle production always seemed like a lot of bother – picking vegetables in a hot garden and then processing them in a hot kitchen. I always felt that the best course of action was to make supportive statements and scurry off to do some important work elsewhere.

But, this week we had an unsettled schedule and my wife had to leave for work halfway through the pickle process.  She gave me detailed instructions and left, looking worried.

Now, I have my faults, but I can follow instructions, especially instructions as simple as, “Take jars out of boiler after ten minutes.”

I took the jars out as instructed and went back to work on my computer.  Over the next half hour I occasionally heard a “tink” coming from the kitchen and when I went out to make myself lunch, all the little jar tops were dented in, and just like that, after half a day’s work, we had 11 jars of pickles ready for winter.

Living where I live, I suppose it’s unavoidable that I spend a certain amount of time thinking about my forebears, and what I was thinking about this week was that the good old days were a lot of damn work.

My wife likes to make pickles to share with the kids and give as gifts to garden deprived folks.  She grows some of the cucumbers herself, but this year the supply has been augmented by my father who has a high producing garden and is incapable, rightly so, of seeing any food go to waste, so sometimes we don’t even have to pick cucumbers, tomatoes, or sweet corn – the produce just appears in a bag on our porch.  She’s worked out a system whereby she processes the vegetables at our dining room table while watching movies on the laptop.  I usually crank the air conditioning up before she starts so the house remains bearable even with three giant pots steaming on the stove.  All in all, not a bad gig, especially as the shelves slowly fill with bright vegetables in clear glass jars.

Compare that to the way it used to be, when canning vegetables wasn’t a way to provide novel gifts or wallow in a feeling of virtue come January, but instead was what put food on the table for nine months out of the year.  You’d start with green peas and beans, move to pickles, than in rapid succession beets, tomatoes and sweet corn.  This all happened in July and August, before central air conditioning. Throw in a few lugs of peaches or bushels of apples just so there’d be something sweet on the shelves and you could keep the kitchen at 100 degrees morning, noon and night for almost a month.  Of course, wheat harvest came at the same time, so the average farm wife could plan on spending a few days cooking for a harvest crew, too – a roomful of sweaty guys who consumed 5,000 calories or so each and every day.  The fact that all the farmers didn’t die as bachelors is kind of a miracle; it’s hard to think of a compelling reason farm wives put up with that routine for generations.

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