In a pickle (or a watched pot sometimes boils over)

J. H. Osborne • Mar 31, 2017 at 8:52 PM

This weekend marks the season opening of a favorite destination of mine and my mother’s: the Kingsport Farmers Market.

She likes to visit as often as she can, especially on Saturdays, all season. But her interest reaches a fever pitch in late summer as the staple crops for canning, pickling and preserving come to harvest in a big way.

Sometimes she just wants “a mess” of green beans to work up for that day’s dinner or supper. To me those two things are lunch and dinner (a sign I might have got above my raising). And I don’t pine for green beans, fresh or otherwise. But no matter which meal, or what it is called, I have since early childhood been hooked on my mother’s old-timey sweet pickles as a welcome addition to the table. Yes, I’ve even eaten them at breakfast on an egg sandwich with a schmear of Duke’s mayonnaise (just think egg salad on toast).

Actually, I apparently couldn’t wait for mealtime or tables when I was just a preschooler. Back then Mom made runs of pickles in this or that heirloom crock, which she kept in a just-above-floor-level cabinet near the doorway from our kitchen to our living room. Mom says after I realized the pickles were far enough along to be edible, I’d often get caught with my fat little hand in the pickle crock, fishing out two or three for me — and perhaps double-dipping if we had guests in the living room and I thought them pickle-worthy.

A couple of years ago, my mother spent a week at my brother Keith’s home in Raleigh, N.C., at the request of his daughters — Kendra, Deidre and Anne Catherine — who wanted “Grammy” to teach them to make her pickles. Otherwise, Mom hadn’t made a run of pickles in a few years. And I had been jonesing for some.

So last August our diversion on a visit to the farmers market became marked-down pickling cucumbers. Cousin Phyllis (Hunt) Manis called Mom to say a favorite vendor had some for $10 for a basket. I am not sure of the actual quantity — but I feel confident in saying it was significantly more than “a mess.” I must confess, I can’t define the quantity that constitutes “a mess.” Our family friend Dr. Bill Hudson asked Mom what exactly “a mess” of beans is. He didn’t get a clear diagnosis. She said she knows “a mess” when she sees it  and that it’s based how many people you plan to feed.

I can’t define “a mess” of beans, and unlike Mom I wouldn’t know when I saw one. But I know a mess, in its most common usage, when I see one — and certainly when I’m the one who made it. And I made an epic mess on what should have been our last day or making “seven-day pickles.” The required cleanup transformed this batch into 11-day pickles.

The recipe, as it were, has as its base a classic seven-day pickle recipe. You can find one in most any church or civic club cookbook across the South. Mom got her recipe more than 50 years ago. She attributes it to a couisin-in-law, Kate Lawson Moore. Each of the first two nights you soak the pickles in a salt brine — draining, rinsing and adding new brine after 24 hours. On the third and fourth nights, you replace the brine with an alum and water mixture. On the fifth day, you drain and rinse the pickles (by this point, diminished in volume quiet a bit as the salt and alum have done their jobs) and cover with a boiling mixture of sugar, apple cider vinegar, and “mixed spices.”

That’s all Mom’s recipe says. In other words, she knows what spices and how much of each to use. It’s called “eyeballing” it in the cooking world, and it makes those of us who want recipes crazy. I can tell you her “old-timey sweet pickles” are heavy on cinnamon (whole stick, some broken, some left whole for bigger canning jars — but never ground, which would make a cloudy pickling liquid) and cloves (whole). It’s the clove taste, I think, that gives her pickles the flavor those of us who love them love.

The pickles are the key to my mother’s deviled eggs. Oh, her deviled eggs are always superior, but they are extraordinary when made with these pickles. People often ask for her deviled egg recipe, and she’s been known to say, “You start in the spring by planting your cucumbers” — meaning the pickles are the flavor they are picking up on.

On the sixth day, you drain the liquid back into a pot and bring it back to a boil before pouring it back over the pickles.

On the seventh day, you prepare your canning jars and lids and gather lids, rings, tongs and other items you’ll need to jar the pickles.Then you drain the liquid — let’s be clear here, it’s syrup — into a pot to bring to a boil again. Once it’s boiling, you begin to pack the pickles into your gathered jars then ladle the boiling syrup in each.

It was the bringing to a boil that got me in a pickle. Mom told me I had filled the pot with too much syrup and unless I was very careful it would boil over. I dismissed her concerns and said I would be standing right there watching and stirring as needed.

Gosh, it took that syrup a long time to even reach simmering. I stepped less than three feet away, but kept my eye on the pot, my large wooden spoon bridging its rim.

And then it happened. Like pouring vinegar into baking soda, my pot erupted like a volcano, spewing molten syrup over its edges and engulfing my spoon before I could lunge the short distance — and then I really made a mess. I instinctively grabbed one of the large pot’s side handles and jerked it off the hot stove eye to its dormant neighbor. That, of course, made syrup go everywhere. It mainly ran down into the pans under each of three stove eyes in the cinnamon-clove-lava’s path and through the holes in each into the stove pan below.

And that’s how it took four more days to finish our pickles. The good news was I hadn’t burned the syrup, so we just poured it and the pickles back into the five-gallon bucket and replaced the weighted cover to keep them submerged. And with the help of my brother-in-law Larry (Fagans), we tracked down new stove eyes and underpans (at Brown’s Appliance Parts Co. in Bristol). Ultimately I spent a morning with the power off and Mom holding a flashlight as I painstakingly cleaned the roughly quarter-inch of congealed syrup from the stove pan.

We already have an appointment to make a run of pickles this summer, when Mom hopes to travel to Augusta, Ga., to teach my niece Allison (Fagans) how to make them as well as how to can in general.

Allison visited last week and circled Mom in the kitchen as the latter made cornbread — which she then used to create another of her signature dishes: dressing. Allison, bless her heart, had a pad and pen ready to write down “Grammy’s” recipes for cornbread and for dressing. But as usual, Mom was “eyeballing it,” so we’ll have to wait and see how Allison fares at re-creating either dish.

Talking to Mom about the pickle recipe and her having gotten it from Kate led me to another diversion: family history. Kate was about 13 years older than my mother. My mother remembers Kate fondly as a kind and generous woman she knew most of her life. Mom’s older sister, my Aunt Venus (Wallen), married Kate’s brother Carson Lawson. Kate married mom’s cousin Clyde Moore, son of mom’s paternal Aunt Jane Wallen Moore — for whom mom is partially named (Wanda Jane). Great Aunt Jane died well before Mom was born, but I didn’t know how. On one of my favorite websites (www.findagrave.com), I found her death certificate. She died of influenza during the 1919 epidemic, about six weeks shy of her 35th birthday. Her portrait hangs in our hall. My mother always has said Jane’s husband was “App” Moore. His tombstone, however, gives the initials A.P. But I also found his death certificate, and it listed his name as “App.” Jane’s death certificate listed her husband as “Ap.” Both are buried in the Moore Cemetery in the Beech Grove area of Scott County, along with Aunt Venus and Uncle Carson, Mom’s paternal grandfather Richard Wallen and other family members.

If you’ve read this far and are a fan of Destinations & Diversions, please consider “liking” my new Facebook page, which is devoted to this column and all things related to travel, food, local events and just plain fun. You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/LittleJohnnyO/.