It never fails. When people discover that I like to can, they ask about my pickles.
“Do you make dill pickles?”
With polite curiosity, they listen as I try to explain that my mother didn’t make them, so I don’t know much about them. But I soon realize that they don’t really care, so I’ve adopted the response, “I haven’t found that perfect dill pickle recipe yet.”
“Then what kind of pickles do you make?”
“Bread and Butter Pickles? They’re a sweet pickle made with onions and cloves.”
Nobody is impressed that my Bread and Butter Pickles won second place at the Calloway County Fair. Once they hear the words “sweet pickle,” they shake their heads yes, they’re familiar with Bread and Butter Pickles. But their mother or grandmother or great aunt or next door neighbor made sweet pickles that were “out-of-this world” due to their sweetness and crunchiness. I’ve always known that they were describing a 14-Day Pickle as there is nothing else like it.
Among the women in my family, the 14-Day Pickle was considered to be the perfect sweet pickle. Don’t get me wrong, they loved Bread and Butter Pickles, but those could be prepared in a day. There was no finesse. No challenge. Growing up, I didn’t care what kind of sweet pickles we had. All I wanted was to sneak off with a warm jar, straight from the canner. If I was careful, Mom would never miss it, especially if she was making a big batch. But then she figured out that every time a jar went missing, her youngest daughter had become suddenly quiet. I was busted.
So she started making me a small jar to curb my pickle enthusiasm, but there was one condition. I had to share. I’ll never forget sitting with her eating warm pickles with our faces and fingers getting sticky from the sweetened brine. The year she began to add a cinnamon stick to each jar was a transcendent experience. I’ll never forget the fireworks that went off in my mouth. I think I ate another four jars by myself before she threatened my life.
My mother was the pickle queen. Her sweet pickles were simply the best. Made from cucumbers she grew in her garden, an intensity would take hold of her in the dog days of August. Once she started a batch of 14-Day Pickles, nothing kept her from completing the task. Like clockwork, everyday at the exact same time, she’d do the required work associated with a batch. It didn’t matter what else was going on, her pickles came first. She made many trips to Murray with a churn full of cucumbers in the backseat of her car. It didn’t matter if she came for a couple of days or a couple of weeks, the churn came with her.
Maybe it’s because I’m paying more attention, but my favorite blogs have been featuring recipes for 7-Day Pickles. I’ve thought, “Hmm. What’s the difference between a 7-Day Pickle and a 14-day Pickle?” So I went to my experts.
First, I called my sister (you know, the former home economics teacher and 4H Agent). “What’s the difference between a 7-Day and a 14-Day Pickle?” As I waited for her answer, I settled back for a long conversation discussing the merits of each recipe.
“I don’t know,” she said. “They can’t be that good if they’re only worked seven days.” Then she changed the subject.
I asked my friends, “Do you know the difference between a 7-Day and a 14-Day Pickle?” I got blank stares.
I went to my favorite internet search engine and typed,”What’s the difference between 7-Day and 14-Day pickles?” I got the internet version of a blank stare. It gave me thousands of links with the word “pickle” or “7” or “14” in the document.
Strike Three. I was on my own.
I decided that I needed to pursue empirical research. So I went out to the garden and collected enough cucumbers to make a small batch of 7-Day Pickles because I had never tasted them. I followed the recipe that I found at Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen. I made the pickles in a clear glass jar, so that I could watch the process. It was rather exciting to watch the cucumbers transform. After a week, with baited breath my beloved and I tasted our first 7-Day Pickles. They were so sour we both choked. Bless his heart, my beloved questioned if I had read the instructions. I knew better than to fling back an insult because, as I checked the recipe, sure enough, I had missed a step. So I went back out to the garden and collected several more cucumbers and started another batch. I pitched my first attempt into our compost pile.
The second batch was much improved. Tart and crunchy, the 7-Day Pickle was made with brine made from apple cider vinegar and pickling spices. Its a sweet pickle, but to my southern taste buds it just didn’t do the trick.
After the cousins’ pickling party, I came home with enough cucumbers to make a big batch of 14-Day Pickles. Surprisingly, I didn’t jump right in. Attempting Mother’s favorite pickle recipe wasn’t going to be as easy as I expected. I questioned my skills as a pickle maker. I became consumed with doubt. “What if I can’t do this?”
I began to realize just how important that recipe was, how important that taste was. Surely it wasn’t something that I could truly duplicate? (After all, I don’t follow recipes.) Faced with a stack of softening cucumbers, I resolved to at least try. After all, I was only making pickles (even if they were the most treasured taste of my childhood.)
I copied the recipe onto my kitchen blackboard, making a checklist so that I would know where I was in the recipe on any day. The first 4-5 days, I faithfully worked the batch at approximately the same time everyday. Then I got bored. Then I completely forgot about day 9. Then I lost count. I just wanted it to be over.
On day 12 we taste tested the batch, and I was pleasantly surprised. They tasted great! Days 13 and 14 called for extra cups of sugar, but I decided that the batch was sweet enough and skipped the extra sweetness. I called my sister to tell her what I had done, and she laughed and admitted to doing similar batches. She even complimented me, saying that I was a true pickle maker now because I had let the soft cucumbers soak in alum an extra day to insure their crispness. I had followed my instincts.
A true pickle maker? Goodness. I nearly cried.
I didn’t actually put the pickles into jars and process them in the canner until day 18 or so. In an homage to Mother, I added a cinnamon stick before putting the lids on. I think she would be proud and tell me that occasionally her 14-Day Pickles were actually 18-Day Pickles or 12 Day-Pickles. (I’m sure they weren’t, but she’d tell me that just to make me feel better about it.)
So here’s my hypothesis regarding the difference between a 7-Day Pickle and a 14-Day Pickle.
Seven-Day Pickles aren’t sweet. They are lip-smacking tart. They have a robust flavor thanks to the apple cider vinegar and pickling spices. These are the perfect pickle for roast beef or salami. They might be more at home in New England.
Fourteen-Day Pickles are very much a southern taste, like sweet tea. They have a unique blending of spicy tartness suspended in a sweet brine. If you add a cinnamon stick, it skyrockets the flavor into the outer atmosphere.
Now that I’ve made the 14-Days, maybe I need to finally look for that perfect dill recipe and make a batch. That way I’ll have an answer the next time somebody asks.
If you’re lucky enough to have the Providence Rural United Methodist Church’s Countryside Recipes from the 1960’s, then you’ll see the original recipe from Mrs. A.W. Oldham. This cookbook is filled with recipes from the Women’s Society of Christian Service and Young Adult Group. Reading the lists of membership for each group makes my heart swell with love and fondness. They were my Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School volunteers, and the my parent’s dearest friends. I treasure this cookbook.
Chuck Sweet Pickles
1 gallon cucumbers
1 c salt (not iodized)
1 1/2 T powdered alum
9 c distilled white vinegar
4 1/2 c sugar
1/2 c pickling spice
3 1/2 T celery seed
2 gallon water
Boil 1/2 gallon of water with salt and pour over cucumbers. Let stand a week, skimming each day. Drain and cut into chunks on the 8th day. Heat 1/2 gallon water and 1/2 T powdered alum. Pour over cucumbers and let stand for 24 hours. On the 9th and 10th day rinse and drain cucumbers. Make a fresh mixture of hot alum water and pour cucumbers.
Day 11 – Drain and rinse cucumbers. Make a pickle mixture of 3 c vinegar, 2 1/2 c sugar, 1/6 c pickling spice, and 1/2 T celery seed. Heat and pour over cucumbers.
Day 12 – Repeat, adding an extra cup of sugar
Day 13 – Repeat, adding an extra cup of sugar
Day 14 – Fill jars with cucumbers and brine, adding a cinnamon stick to each jar. Seal jars by using water bath method for 15 minutes.