I’ve been afraid of canners since reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. For those of you who weren’t English majors and might have missed out on this beautiful masterpiece, there is a small part in the book in which one character, Cathy, sneakily murders the mistress of the brothel where she works by suggesting that the brothel can its own vegetables as a way to save money. Cathy then makes sure that the owner eats a bad jar of green beans and dies of botulism. Soooo, there you have it. That was enough to put me off canning.
However, a few years ago, I decided I couldn’t claim pioneering status if I didn’t can things. Armed with a few pounds of garden cucumbers and two pickling recipes from my friend Mark, Keith and I canned about 20 jars of pickles one night. The great part of these recipes is that the pickles were hot packed, which means there was no time necessary in the pressure canner; instead, the jars (hot from being run under hot water–we poured the boiling kettle over them in the sink) are packed with sliced cucumbers and boiling brine is poured into them. The heat from the jars and the brine is enough to make the cans seal. Somehow, not having to use a canner got me past my fear of botulism. I know that doesn’t make any logical sense, but it worked.
Having had gratifying success with that first round of canning, I decided last summer to try again. On my own. While my 3-month-old hung out in her little bouncer in the kitchen. It was an ill-fated endeavor from the get-go. Little Bear began screaming in the middle of what my father would call “a critical stage” in the process–while I was pouring boiling brine into the jars. She continued to scream as I wiped all the mouths of the jars and sealed them. By the time I was able to pick her up, she was hiccoughing for breath and my nerves were frazzled.
The jars sat on the counter for two weeks with Keith eying them doubtfully. I kept trying to convince him (and myself) that it was merely the heads of dill in the jars that were making the jars cloudy. Cucumbers are actually one of the safest things to can because the brine is almost all vinegar and salt, which is not a conducive environment for growing food contaminants.
However, cloudy liquid, weird fizziness, or lids that don’t seal are immediate grounds for disposal because they indicate that something has gone wrong with the process.
Unfortunately, my jars were showing signs of all three, and Keith is especially cautious when it comes to bacteria and food illness (he also has read East of Eden). Finally, he tested all the lids, “Honey, I don’t think these sealed. We need to pour them out.”
I had just sat down on the couch with Little Bear after she refused to go down for a nap.
“I CAN’T TALK TO YOU ABOUT THE PICKLES RIGHT NOW!” I screamed.
That was when I realized that it wasn’t just about the pickles because, after all, my fear of food poisoning should have triumphed immediately. Instead, this was about my identity before and after kids. I didn’t want to be one of those moms who stopped doing and being all the things that she had been and done before having kids. I wanted to be a good mom, but I also wanted to be me, and that meant still doing the projects and cooking that I love.
That day after my crying and screaming subsided, I admitted to myself the sad truth that, despite my intentions of continuing to cook and create, some things don’t mix: three-month-olds and complicated kitchen processes that take intense focus are just two examples. I also admitted that my pride in accomplishing kitchen tasks wasn’t worth the risk of food poisoning. Then I got on with the sad job of composting several pounds of pickles.
Now I can with friends instead. Besides the bonus of having someone else to continue stirring the boiling brine when I have to rescue my screaming child, it’s much more fun to talk and laugh while chopping and mixing. Also, who needs 20 jars of pickles?
For anyone who wonders, here are two great pickle recipes. One is a personal favorite (I can’t reveal the actual recipe I use because it’s a friend’s family recipe, but it’s very similar to this one from Cooks.com) for curry pickles. Yes, that’s right. Curry pickles. As one of my youth group kids put it, “These taste like a dill pickle and a sweet pickle had a baby and this was it.” She’s right. The other is the recipe for dill pickles that I use (with this one, you can actually put the pickle jars into the pressure canner after you pack them if you want to be sure they seal…I’ve now tried it that way with much more consistent results. Just follow the canner instructions after you use this recipe).
Ingredients: cucumbers, dill, garlic, alum, canning salt, white vinegar
1. Clean cucumbers (~2-3 pounds), slice, and let stand in cold water several hours.
2. Wash heads of dill (1-2 for each jar) and peel garlic (1-2 cloves per jar)
3. Sterilize jars (dishwasher or hand wash and then pour boiling water over).
4. Mix brine: heat to boiling 6 quarts water, 1 tsp. alum (to keep crunchiness), 2 scant c. canning salt (make sure you do scant cups…or cut back a bit to 1 and 1/2 cups–ours were a bit salty), and 1 quart white vinegar.
5. Drain cucumbers and pack into jars along with one or two heads of dill and 1 or two cloves of garlic.
6. Fill jars with boiling brine, wipe jar mouths, and seal with (new) lids and bands.
7. Let pickles cure for 2 months. If the jars don’t seal (test by pressing the lids gently), store in the refrigerator immediately–they can’t be kept in the pantry.
Ingredients:16 med. unpeeled cucumbers, sliced
2 1/2 c. vinegar
2 1/2 c. water
4 c. sugar
4 tbsp. curry powder
5 tbsp. mustard seedDirections: Let cucumbers stand in 1 cup salt and 16 c. water for 5 hours. Rinse. Bring syrup to a boil and put cucumbers in until they change color. Then pack in jars, pour syrup over and seal.