Why Canadians can’t leave pickles alone
Whether it's old backwoods favorites like chowchow, corn relish and bread-and-butter pickles or exotic European arrivals like Kosher and Polish dills, we’re among the world's champion pickle-snatchers. Here’s how we got that way
The long Canadian love affair with pickles, a sentimental liaison which began in the hackwoods, has entered a new sophisticated phase over which hangs the haunting fragrance of garlic.
This continental touch has been brought to the old romance by postwar arrivals to this country who have brought with them an appetite for pickles which arc exotic by our pioneer standards. But even with the increased eating ol Kosher and Polish dills and hot and mild banana peppers, across the land the rich and varied Canadian pickle tradition has held its own. I he only change here is that old favorites like corn relish, chowchow. piccalilli, chili sauce and bread-and-butter pickles are now more likely to •come to the table from a factory than from the kitchen.
Canadians, who have always been great pickle eaters, last year spent fifteen million dollars on them, not counting the declining but still considerable home operation. The consumption of commercial pickles has increased sixty-six percent since 1951. In the U. S. sales have gone up seventy-seven percent in the same period.
This increase is due in part to the decline in home canning, partly to the increase in population which includes many Europeans whose taste buds arc attuned to pickles. Our changed eating habits, with a greater emphasis on buffets, barbecues and that game of culinary blind man’s buff known as dinner before the TV. probably have something to do with it too.
Canadians first became interested in pickles because, in common with other residents of the northern hemisphere, they faced a lack of fresh vegetables during the winter. Most of our recipes have been brought from Northern Europe by settlers who applied traditional techniques to saving some of the garden’s bounty for the long winter months.
The long and growing popularity of pickles should be no great mystery to anyone who has ever tasted one, but since we are clocking the great social forces that bear gherkins and tiny silverskin onions (delicious) on their tide we should take a look at another piquant theory. This is that Canadians eat pickles to disguise and thereby make palatable the uninteresting food they get in most homes and restaurants.
It may be significant that the literature of French and Italian cooking ignores pickles. There is not a single recipe for them in Escoffier's master work. The suggestion here is that the well-flavored food of these countries is sufficiently interesting to stand by itself without being propped up by a retaining wall of highly spiced pickles.
But in this country and the U. S. the pickle continues to move, from its traditional position at the side, closer to ihe centre of the food scene. Behind the pickle, shoving it into this new prominence. is a lively trade group known as the National Pickle Packers Association with headquarters in Chicago. The association’s basic pitch to housewives is calm and direct. It tells them their time is far too precious to be spent over a hot kettle, even though it gives off some of the headiest aromas since the discovery of fire. It tells them, in effect, to give their jars and sealers to the salvage man and hurry on down to the supermarket where they will find pickles as good, if not better, than the ones they have been trying to make, and at no greater cost. This argument, backed continued on page 92
are being savored by the judges at the Canadian National Exhibition in the photograph above. Not long after it was taken they awarded the CNE’s accolade for mustard pickles to a Toronto housewife, Mrs. J. M. Campbell, for her Mustard Beans. What follows, Maclean’s learned from an elated Mrs. Campbell, is the formula for her peerless pickles:
Clean and cut into small pieces 6 quarts of wax beans. Cover them in water with a teaspoon of salt added: boil for about 20 minutes: drain.
Combine 3 pints of cider vinegar with 3 pounds of white sugar and bring the mixture to a boil. Make a paste of one cup of mustard, one cup of flour. 2 teaspoons of turmeric, 2 teaspoons of celery seed, one teaspoon of salt, and cold water. Add this paste to the boiling vinegar syrup and cook for 5 minutes.
Combine the beans and sauce and pour, piping hot. into jars. Seal the jars. Just try to leave them alone.
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up by some bought pickles, has been convincing enough to inspire some Canadian housewives to write grateful letters which sound as though the pickle makers had just rescued them from the hold of a pirate frigate.
The association has embellished this message with a fresco of stunts and promotions designed to make the cucumber as personable as Lassie. During its national convention in Chicago in 1955 it advertised for three World War II bombardiers to drop dill pickles from a twentieth-story hotel window in an attempt to hit a barrel. The stunt got its start when it was recalled that the men who flew the Flying Fortresses for the U. S. Army Air Corps used to boast that their Norden bomb sight could drop a fivehundred-pounder in a pickle barrel. The veteran who came closest was sixteen inches away. His prize was a pickle.
In 1956 the ninth Earl of Sandwich, the eighty-one-year-old descendant of the peer who gave his name to sandwiches, was selected for a special award in honor of his ancestor’s contribution to the pickle industry. The earl said he considered it an honor and would accept although he declined to fly to the U. S. to pick up the award. Lord Sandwich was later heard to remark that while he was “both touched and amused” he was sure the other earl would “turn about in his grave” if he ever heard of it.
Each year, as National Pickle Week draws near—it was May 22 to 31 this year — the association bombards radio and television comics with suggested gags.
Red Skelton gave pickles a plug when he said, “Tonight we bring you a product that is really something—the Dilly Dally Drippy Dill Pickle. They bet me I couldn't get it out and it looks as though they win.”
A promotion in 1953, tied in with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, drew sour looks from the Canadian members of the association, as though they had just taken a bite out of a bad dill. The stunt was to find a girl with the name Elizabeth Pickle and crown her queen of National Pickle Week. They found their queen, with some difficulty, married to an air-
force pilot stationed on a Georgia base. She appeared on several television programs and got a hundred dollars for revealing her identity.
And not content with antics such as these the association has put out the word that pickles arc not only full of crunchy goodness but' are good for you, too. Not that the true pickle lover is apt to care one way or the other, but the word is that their favorite delicacy contains vitamin A (that’s the body-building vitamin, the association reminds you) as well as vitamins Bl, B2 and C. For good measure there is phosphorus, iron, copper and salt as well.
All this nourishment is fine, but long before anyone knew anything more about pickles than the indisputable fact that they tasted good, Canadians had established their own favorites which have kept their places in the heart of the nation despite the added starters from Europe. The most popular homemade pickle is still relish in its many forms. The most popular commercial pickle is an item known to the trade as sweet mixed. In the Maritimes mustard pickles are a close second and in other parts of the country pasteurized dills, so mild, say the makers, that babies can safely eat them, are swiftly rising in demand. In the cities, where there is a larger foreignborn population, Kosher dills, laden with garlic, and Polish dills, fiery with hot red pepper pods, are gaining new friends.
But for pickle snobs, like the writer, and for people who just like to eat interesting food without acting as though they had been blessed with absolute pitch in the palate, the homemade article with its rich traditions and richer smells will never lose its appeal or its romance.
I guess I feel about pickles the way I feel about cigars. I was put into orbit on the matter of cigars when I was a small boy in Prince Albert. I had gone to the Fair with my father, who as a member of the board had a pass and the right to walk up to the strange and wonderful men with the show and start right in talking to them. One of these was a tall white-haired man with a shoestring bow tie, congress gaiters and a
southern accent that would make Senator Claghorn sound like a Yankee. He was the first man I had ever heard use the Johnsonian device of starting every sentence with the prefix “Sir.”
At one point in the conversation he glanced sharply at my father’s cigarette and reached into his vest pocket and drew out the longest cigar I had ever seen.
“Suh,” he said handing it to my father, “throw that cigareet away and spend half an hour in Havana.”
My father bit off the tip, wet the cigar between his lips and carefully lit it with a kitchen match. The heavy blue smoke made whorls in the air the way cream slowly spins a pattern on the brown surface of a cup of coffee. One of the whorls curved past my nose. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, a little giddy. After all, I had never been in Havana before.
It was like that at home when pickling started in mid-summer. Just to read the labels on the cans of condiments (bought from the Watkins man at the door) was like listening to a poem by John Masefield when his ship of poesy was running well before a spice-laden trade wind. Coriander, fennel, ginger, peppercorn and the best name of all, savory. As the bright mixture in the big kettle began to hump and the exciting odors of the spices were released the whole house was filled with an exotic presence.
It must have been about that time when I became a secret pickle snatcher. I didn't know it until years later when I was reading a magazine quiz which was supposed to tell whether you were a secret drinker. For anyone in suspense the answer lies in whether or not you take an extra peg when you’re out in the kitchen filling your guests’ glasses. It has always been that way with me and pickles. I often stop on my way through and take a spoonful of the cleargolden joy that is corn relish or sneak a dill, free from the stultifying taste of meat and potatoes, which, I understand, are sometimes served by the tindiscriminating with pickles.
Some secret pickle snatchers aren't able to handle their vice. A man near us in Prince Albert, who was more than fond of a particularly delicious bean-andmustard pickle, put up (or down—take your choice) over a hundred bottles of this savory kickshaw while his wife and family were in Banff for the summer. When she came home his wife accepted the surprise with the calm and grace of a motorist who has just had a fender pleated but is well covered with insurance.
Later in the year some original miscalculation in his project began to make itself evident. One by one, and sometimes in salvoes, the bottles popped until it sounded from the street as though William S. Hart and Hoot Gibson were shooting it out in his basement. “Bacteria,” he murmured to me one day as the echo of exploding mustard and beans followed him to work.
Our own storeroom was a wonderful place in the fall. The fine smells which had haunted the house benevolently through the late summer still lingered and as far as the eye could see stood ranks of "gems” or jars. Green-tomato pickles, one of our favorites, with peppercorns to be coped with like the shot in a wild duck ... a crock of dills in one corner and in another eggs in waterglass . . . ruddy chili sauce . . . corn relish, its gold flecked with bits of red pepper. And there were always a few added starters on the shelves, the product of some trading or purchases at a
“Everyone used to pick up some pickle lore and a pickle appetite”
Ladies’ Aid sale of homecooking at the church. Some of these were frankly terrible. probably because they weren't our own. But one year there was a jar of tiny corncobs from the kitchen of a German family. I wasn't to see these again until a few years ago when I was in Kitchener. These crisp nuggets, plucked prodigally before their time, cannot help but make any true pickle man reach mistily for his bandanna, like a Kentucky colonel on hearing the band play Dixie.
It's that moment of rightness that makes all pickles taste a little better. The commercial makers understand this and run advertisements showing their men in the field equipped with walkietalkies. and perhaps even stethoscopes, so that cucumbers, tomatoes and all vegetables chosen to become pickles may be taken at the precise moment of their rendezvous with destiny. When nearly everyone had a garden this timing was easy to achieve and pickling became a family enterprise with the younger ones, who couldn’t be trusted with the chopping because they hadn't learned the difference between an index finger and a gherkin, helping to bring in the fresh vegetables and clean them.
That way everyone, boys and girls alike, seemed to pick up a little pickle lore as well as an enduring appetite for them. In our family, as in many families, there are old cookbooks and old recipes, some of them so venerable they arc out of fashion, unfortunately. Children used to be told to go easy on the pickles because they would make them dream. Some of these old "receipts” can start you dreaming just by reading them.
Mrs. Hannah Glasse, in her famous nineteenth century Arts of Cookery, has a formula for “catchup to keep twenty years.” She recommended it particularly to English seafaring men. “Take a gallon of strong stale beer,” she told them. “The stronger and the staler the beer the better the catchup will be.” To this they were urged to add anchovies, shalots, mace, whole pepper, four large “races" of ginger and mushrooms. "You may carry it to the Indies,” she assured her clients.
Mrs. Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management was in its 253rd thousand when our 1885 copy w'as printed. She had a recipe for pickled eggs that called for sixteen eggs, a quart of vinegar, a half ounce of black pepper, a half ounce of Jamaica pepper and a half ounce of ginger. The eggs arc boiled for twelve minutes, then stripped of their shells after being dipped in cold water. The spices are simmered with the vinegar for ten minutes and then poured over the eggs which are made airtight when cool and left for a month before being tackled.
The cooks of that day pickled a wide variety of meats, seafood and vegetable matter. Walnuts of all hues — green, white and black — oysters, mushrooms, asparagus, radish, mussels, cockles, and even garlic. They pul down sauerkraut, pigs' feet and that red-cabbage pickle that is still a standby, with scalloped potatoes, at church suppers in the fall. But there is no indication that they ever preserved such tasty morsels as baby bees, fried ants, rattlesnake meat and tamarind chutney, all of which can be found on the shelves of flossy grocery shops today.
Mrs. Glasse shared the belief of other cooks of her time that to touch the pickles would spoil the batch. “Be sure
never to put your hands in to take pickles out, it will soon spoil. The best method is to tie to every pot a little wooden spoon with holes in it to take the pickles out with.”
Canada’s pioneer women made their own vinegar and when it was not to be had they used whisky and water which in time, according to Mrs. Catherine Parr Traill, the wife of an immigrant English Army officer who took his family to a farm near Peterborough in the early nineteenth century, did just as well.
Old-fashioned pickles have been kept alive by books like Dutch Oven, "a cookbook of traditional recipes from the kitchens of Lunenburg (N.S.)," prepared by the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Lunenburg Hospital Society. It tells how to make nine-day pickles, which started out in the early cookbooks as twenty-day pickles, but even with time off for progress it's doubtful if many women take the trouble to make them any more. Rhubarb relish (good with fish, says Josephine Eisenhouer). chili sauce, pickled beets and the recipes of other standards are there preserved.
As almost everyone knows you can pickle salsify, nasturtium buds, pineapples and pears. If it grows, it seems it will pickle. The pickle category technically includes any foodstuff that has been preserved by vinegar or brine. This could embrace spiced beef, ham, and of course herring, the basis of all good smorgasbord. But in this article the emphasis has been on pickled vegetables like cucumbers, the basic ingredient of so many great pickles.
Dilled cucumbers (or tomatoes) are not hard to make. Even the man of the house can do them without wasting a lot of good cucumbers or. worse, getting the idea that he is ready for his cordon bleu. Here is a recipe for Kosher dills, which incidentally have no dietary significance. Their big brothers, Polish dills, are the same kind of pickle with more hot peppers.
Kosher Dill Cucumbers
1 half bushel small firm cucumbers dried dill
water to cover (about 3 gallons) one pound salt 5 pods of garlic sliced half pound mixed pickling spices
Wash cucumbers very carefully, one at a time. If they're not clean the pickles will spoil. Place in a large stoneware crock. Break up the dill and put it around the cucumbers. Make a brine of water, salt, garlic and spices. A fresh egg in the shell will rise to the surface when enough salt has been added. Add the brine to cover the cucumbers completely. Cover the cucumber with
an airtight lid. Let them stand at room temperature until they arc to your liking. This will depend on the temperature of the room. They can be eaten after three or four days but if you like them well done leave them for a week or longer. When they suit your taste refrigerate the pickles to halt the pickling process. Makes about ten quarts.
This is the green-tomato pickle mentioned earlier. It drips—but it's delicious.
An eleven-quart basket of green tomatoes. Slice thin. Add cup of salt.
Let stand 24 hours. Drain water off.
Slice one dozen onions and a head of cabbage.
Cover with vinegar (over half a gallon) and add 2 cups of brown sugar. Add 2 ounces of mustard seed.
2 teaspoons each of allspice, mace, cinnamon, and ginger.
I teaspoon of cayenne.
I teaspoon of mustard.
Boil together for twenty minutes. Bottle and seal. Makes 17 pints.
And the corn relish, which, next to a well-turned dill, is probably the best of all.
9 ears of corn, 6 cucumbers, 4 large onions. 6 green tomatoes, 3 red peppers, 1 bunch of celery. 3 tablespoons mustard, five cents worth mustard seed, 1 quart vinegar. 1 pound white sugar. 4 tablespoons salt. Cut all the vegetables fine and boil fifteen minutes. Put in sealers. Will keep any time. Makes 6-7 pints.
This is the original old recipe so for “five cents worth mustard seed” allow' for inflation and read two ounces.
Pickles have had so many addicts for so long that they've built their own legends. Here's one an old-timer in Saskatoon once told me about the power of pickles. He said that at the time the railroad was going through, the construction gang went on strike over their diet which consisted mostly of venison and prairie chicken. They held out for pickled pork.
Another pickle legend concerns one of the correspondents who came back from the Spanish-Ameriean War. He alarmed his friends by his sallow sickly appearance. On his own initiative he put himself on a diet of orange sherbet and pickles. In no time his health had apparently improved. “That man,” said one of his colleagues, a short rather condensed-looking writer, who was later to work for a digest magazine, “was Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage.”
Pass the pickles, please. ★