Food for the Soul

Story Jeff Clark | Photographs Luisa Porter

There are many things I associate with my childhood — “Star Wars,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” red-faced Southern Baptist preachers and the sounds of Waylon Jennings. I also fondly remember my Mamaw and Papaw and the food they made. I remember sweaty summers sitting on the back porch trying not to throw up from the smell while Mamaw boiled quarts of vinegar to use while canning pickles. Truth be known, I was never a fan of Mamaw’s pickles. Sure, I loved her biscuits and cornbread and coconut cake, but I always found her pickles to be somewhat swampy with huge limbs of bitter dill permeating the flavor. And yes, there is such a thing as too much dill. But I loved the pickle maker and the pickling process.

THE GREAT PICKLE DIVIDE
Today, I’m passionate about making my own pickles. Through trial and error, I’ve created a recipe I’m comfortable with, and it’s also a recipe my wife likes. I’m not certain of the number, but I’m pretty sure many marriages end in divorce because of nasty pickles.

I like to use whole garlic, hot peppers and whole cloves in my sour pickle recipe. I modeled this after a pickle I had in New York. Yes, this Southern boy’s favorite pickle isn’t from some small store on a back road in Mississippi, although my favorite pickled smoked sausage can be found at The Old Country Store in Caledonia next to Allen Jones’ car lot.

No, my favorite cured cucumber comes from the kosher deli, Barney Greengrass, on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. Aside from being the Sturgeon King, Barney Greengrass serves these amazing sour pickles. I obsess over these pickles. The last time I was in New York, I went to get one, practically salivating in the taxi along the way. My heart was broken when I arrived only to find Barney Greengrass was closed due to Passover. Oy Vey!

Today, pickles have taken on a life of their own, far removed from the shelves of the dusty cupboard at Mamaw’s. They come in all kinds of flavors and varieties such as half-sour and bread-and-butter. Pickles are a thriving cottage industry; they are hip, trendy and all over the place.

A PH.D. IN PICKLES
My lifelong friend Katy Tackett is one of the top pickle bloggers in the nation (picklefreak.com). A native of Aberdeen, Katy was at the forefront of the hipster pickle movement in New York, which yielded companies such as McClurg’s Pickles and Brooklyn Brine. Katy now spends her days and nights in New Orleans. I had pickle questions, and I knew she had answers.

“I think pickles are so popular right now because there is no limit to what you can pickle and no limit to the variations you can experiment with,” Katy said. “It’s also easy and affordable and with so many people taking more of an interest in growing their own food or supporting their local farmers’ market, it’s a great way to preserve your harvest and make your fridge and pantry infinitely more delicious.”

Katy shared stories of eating whole jars of pickles on her mama’s hardwood floor and how she has spent her life searching for her favorite pickle. Katy basically has a Ph.D. in pickles.

“Sour and half-sour pickles are varieties of kosher pickles, which are pickles that are naturally fermented in a crock or pickle barrel in a solution of salt, water and spices, as opposed to a solution of vinegar, water, salt and spices. The longer you leave the cucumbers submerged in the brine, the more “sour” they become, so half-sours are ones that haven’t spent as much time in the brine as the full-sours. Half-sours retain their cucumber flavor and full-sours are more, well, pickled,” she explained. “I love a big, crunchy full-sour pickle myself. Bread-and-butter pickles are less sweet than sweet pickles but usually do have some sugar added to them, along with mustard seed and slices of onion. There are as many different recipes for sweet and bread-and-butter pickles as there are people who make them. I love the fresh zing of onion in homemade bread-and-butter pickles, and I can’t get enough of sweet and spicy pickles. Wickles Pickles, made in Alabama, are my favorite.”

I, too, love Wickles Pickles. I love their pickles and the fact that they sponsor the Alabama/Auburn sports comedy show “The Iron Bowl Hour” hosted by the Lochamy Brothers, Will and Reed.

ONE KOOL PICKLE
Another pickle I’m fascinated with is something called a Koolickle, which is a jug of sour pickles marinated in Kool-Aid and sugar. These are popular treats in the Delta. My friend Twinkle VanWinkle (yes, you read right) from Water Valley can make a mean Koolickle. Twinkle is something of a renaissance woman — a musician, artist, writer and chef wrapped up in one vibrant rock-star package (twinklevanwinkle.com). She’s currently hosting a cooking segment on the local news in Indianapolis, but her heart and her Koolickles will always belong to the South.

I reckon pickles are one of those things that we appreciate more as we get older. Hell, I would give anything to have a chance to try my Mamaw’s pickles one more time. Sure, they may have tasted terrible, but there was none sweeter than the pickle-maker herself.


THE PICKLE FREAK’S PICKLE RECIPE

2 quarts water, bottled or filtered
1 1/2 quarts distilled white vinegar
3/4 cup pickling or sea salt
1-2 fresh hot peppers
12 prepared pint canning jars
13-15 pounds of Kirby cucumbers, whole or sliced into spears or rings
Yellow mustard seed (1 teaspoon per jar)
Cloves of garlic (1 per jar)
Crushed red pepper (2 teaspoons per jar)
Fresh dill (about 24 sprigs)

To prepare jars and lids:

• Wash jars in boiling water for 10 minutes, Reduce to simmer and remove with tongs as needed.
• In a medium saucepan, fit lids and rings together, cover with water, bring to a simmer. Do not drain until ready to seal jars.

To make brine:

• Bring water, salt and vinegar to a boil, stirring to make sure salt dissolves. Turn off heat. Place a hot pepper, sliced down the middle, in the pot to steep in the vinegar.

To make pickles:

• In each jar, place a teaspoon of yellow mustard seed, a sprig of dill and a clove of garlic.
• Tightly pack jars with washed and dried cucumbers.
• Sprinkle crushed red pepper on top and pack in another sprig of dill.
• Pour brine over cucumbers, leaving a half-inch of headroom. Add a hot lid and ring to each jar (tightening evenly).


TWINKLE VANWINKLE’S KOOLICKLES

1 gallon jar kosher dill pickles
2 packages cherry Kool-Aid
1 pound sugar

• Drain liquid from pickles into a large container.
• Add Kool-Aid mix and sugar to liquid and stir until sugar is completely dissolved.
• Remove pickles from jar, slice in half lengthwise and return them to jar.
• Pour pickle juice/Kool-Aid mixture over sliced pickles. Note: Not all of liquid will fit, just make sure pickles are completely submerged.
• Store in refrigerator and let sit for at least one week before eating.