This fall I engaged in an activity I’ve neglected for the last few years. I made pickles! I had wanted to do it every time I went to the farmer’s market and saw the piles of small cucumbers and sheaves of dillweed, but just couldn’t seem to make the time. However, this one particular Saturday afternoon I just could not help myself. Before I knew it I was back home with 20 pounds of pickling cucumbers, several litres of vinegar, bagfuls of coarse salt, onions, pickling spice, and dozens of heads of garlic. I then spent the rest of the weekend hauling my gem and mason jars out of retirement, then sterilizing jars, scrubbing cucumbers, peeling garlic, concocting the brine and processing the final product. For good measure I did a dozen jars of pickled carrots too.
At the end of it all, I had almost 30 jars of finished product. Surrounded by the aroma of vinegar and spice, feeling the warm hiss from the steam of the canner, I admired my creations on my table, beautiful bright green soldiers all in a row. The sense of satisfaction was overwhelming, and it took me back years to when I used to help my grandmother and mother with canning. My grandmother canned everything from chicken to green beans to saskatoons. I loved sitting in her warm kitchen on the farm, helping sort and clean and prepare. And of course I loved eating the finished product too!
I took this love of canning with me as an adult. From the time my babies were born, I would can peaches, pears, blueberries and strawberries for their enjoyment, blending this fruit into homemade baby food. Although I never made “regular pickles” back then, I made beet pickles, mustard pickles, and pickled carrots. One year I developed my own special recipe of hot pickles, combining silverskin onions, carrots, and cauliflower with jalepeno and serrano peppers to create a spicy concoction that received rave reviews from everyone. I learned a valuable lesson the first year, when I washed and handled dozens of the peppers with my bare hands. A few hours later I discovered why this was not a good idea. I spent the rest of the night in agony, feeling like I had first-degree burns on my skin! I use gloves now when handling peppers. Everyone always tells me I should market my hot pickles, but I never got around to investigating how this could be done. I have also experimented with several versions of canned salsa.
Canning, for me, is always a big project. I’m not satisfied with making just a dozen of anything – the last time I made hot pickles we counted 120 litre jars full at the end of the day! I’ve taught my daughters how to can, and they all chip in – even if somewhat reluctantly. We all sit around the table, each one with a task: peeling garlic, washing carrots, chopping tomatoes, scalding & peeling onions, filling jars. It’s a wonderful family moment, a way to work together to create something all of us will enjoy later.
Of course, as a student, I haven’t had time to make hot pickles or salsa in a long time, nor do I can fruit anymore. But a few years ago I decided to try regular pickles, since I remembered them as being a canning project that was relatively low in time demands. They turned out so well that my family has been asking when I was going to do another batch. This time around, I managed the project alone, and did it on a very small scale so that I could get the job done quickly.
As I worked, I thought about the lost art of preserving and canning, wondering how many of my daughters’ generation even have the necessary know-how, let alone the desire. It’s all too easy to go and buy canned fruit or pickles at the local supermarket. If you are really into home-made, there are plenty of farmer’s markets where you can purchase canned produce of all kinds. It’s hard to justify spending the time to can your own, in this busy life we lead. Yet, its such a wonderful sense of satisfaction, a feeling of creative accomplishment, and nothing matches the flavour of pickles or fruit you have canned yourself. There is an indescribable beauty to those jars of floating treasure. Strawberries are like red jewels in rich syrup, carrots are bright orange sticks standing at attention, hot pickles a multi-coloured variety display, peaches a warm orange treat.
It’s sad to see this skill and tradition lost. My daughters are fortunate to have this knowledge, and I know they will continue the tradition, although not necessarily on the scale I have.
Already we have consumed a half dozen jars of the pickles…delicious!
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.