I’m an ambassador for my friend Sarah’s Project STIR, in which she’s telling families’ stories through their beloved recipes. See the description at the bottom of this post.
I’m talking about the grandkids who lived on either side of her: Keith, Judy, Dan, Mike and Penny. Not me, not my brother (we lived in California), not most of Nanny’s 15 grandkids – just the lucky five who lived on either side of her and Papa in their little rock house on Hilltop Road in Cave City, Arkansas.
The rest of us lived in other towns (or states) and only got the pickles during visits. I imagine we ate more than a quart when the herd converged on Nanny’s kitchen, though. (Would she have been able to stop us?)
My grandparents squeezed a lot of kids (seven), grandkids, spouses and great-grands into their little kitchen/dining room – on Sunday afternoons, on special holidays … heck, just any time we were able to get together. It was a loud, delicious holy mess of people and homemade food. Somehow, we all found a place to sit and eat: at the dining table, in the living room, on the back porch, on the front porch swing or the steps. In the hot months, we’d be out in the yard, especially when watermelons were in season (someday I’ll tell you about Cave City watermelons.)
Only recently, when my cousin Penny created a Facebook page in honor of our grandparents, did I find out just how special it was living year-round next to Clay and Ila Taylor.
My brother and I visited every summer with our parents, until we moved to Arkansas, and then we were there most Sunday afternoons. We have a cousin who’s still in Arizona, and most of the rest have been scattered around Arkansas all their lives.
But those five … those five lived the country life that harried urbanites only dream of nowadays.
Specific to the pickles, though … here’s what Judy said:
“Nanny would can pickles in quart Mason jars every summer. Dan, Mike, Penny and I would start begging for them before the jars would even seal. Then, after we wore her down and so we would have pickles through the winter and next spring, she would limit us to eating only 1 quart a day! She must have canned 100 quarts or more each summer! We had to help can them, too, but it was really not much work for us kids.”
Her sister Penny’s story is slightly different:
“Picking the cucumbers was not fun because they were down on the ground under the leaves. We had to wake up by 7 to pick the garden, but then we could go back to bed. Worst part was the dew was still on the plants and it made you so itchy. Nanny had two giant galvanized tubs and we washed all the veggies in one tub and transferred to the second tub for final wash. Of course the tubs were filled with that awesome water they had [from their well].
“We sat up the washing stations out beside the pump house under the big trees. Nanny always handled the cutting of them because we couldn’t even touch her knives. No matter what veggie she was working on, Nanny would tape up her right thumb with white medical tape to prevent cuts.”
Nanny had been canning food for so long (“She never wasted anything,” my mom said) that she had developed a system. Penny still remembers some of those rituals:
“Nanny was really particular about her jars. She sterilized them in the big white wash pans on the stove. I still have some of her old jars. I can always tell them from others because they have lines going down the side. …
“I can just picture Nanny right now wiping down the tops of the jars with her rags that were bleached the whitest of white. She wanted all the salt and alum off the top so the flat and ring would seal properly. Then the entire jar was wiped down with a different rag.
“The cucumbers were always cut, only by Nanny, in one quarter spears or [halves].”
I certainly loved those pickles, but I didn’t know until recently just how many of us salivated – and puckered – over them.
“I still feel my jaws pull a little at the mention of those salty sour pickles,” cousin Pam said.
I know the feeling.
I don’t remember Pam ever drinking the juice, although she apparently did when I wasn’t looking: “Who didn’t love drinking pickle juice!?! Still pucker at the thought.” (Apparently one cousin did not get the pickle-loving gene: Teri said she would rather eat a spider.) But Pam’s sister, Robin, and I would practically race each other to the jar to see who could drain it first.
Pam and Robin’s mom also made awesome pickles, even though she once said hers weren’t as good as Nanny’s. I beg to differ. It’s been a lot of years since I had one of Aunt Donna’s pickles, but I remember that they were really, really good.
Sure, they weren’t Nanny’s legendary pickles. But they were good.
My mom must have been intimidated because, even though she has Nanny’s recipe, which looks well-loved on the sheet of lavender notebook paper below, neither of us can recall her ever making them. (It’s probably a good thing: Her handwritten version is missing an ingredient: alum.)
Nanny’s great-grandson David had no such qualms about the recipe. He thought everyone should be able to make his Nanny Taylor’s pickles. He loved them so much he shared them in the church cookbook one year.
His mom, Penny, said:
“Mount View ladies auxiliary decided to make a cookbook and sell them to raise money. Everyone in the church was asked to submit their favorite recipes. I asked the kids about it, and David chose as his favorite ‘Nanny’s Pickles.’ He was so proud! I have always loved church cookbooks because they contain ‘tried and true’ recipes usually handed down. Nanny’s pickle recipe sure has been passed down and has stood the test of time.”
“My kids always loved any kind of pickle, especially David. Our mother was able to replicate Nanny’s recipe so the grandkids could eat ‘Nanny’s pickles’ they heard about all their lives. After Nanny had her illness and was in [the nursing home], she would come to Mother’s house most weekends. One time I got the bright idea to make the pickles recipe. Of course Nanny told me every step. These pickles weren’t even half as good as Nanny’s or Mother’s. But the kids loved them and drank the juice like it was soda.”
And then there were Aunt Bee’s pickles. Remember, no one had the guts to tell her they were awful.
But Project STIR is all about family memories and heirloom recipes. Maybe it’s time my mom and I got over our pickle-making phobia and got together for a batch.
Pass the Mason jars, please.
Project STIR is a series of documentary films launched on Kickstarter. The films will follow Abuelitas, Nans and Mamaws passing down heirloom recipes in kitchens around the globe, including countries such as Panama, New Zealand, Turkey, Croatia and England – and United States, of course. Click here to learn more about how to be involved, or simply follow along on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
And I can’t let you leave without mentioning that Sarah has partnered with The Pack Shack, a very worthy organization that feeds those in need (with the help of folks like you and me). Click here to see what I wrote about The Pack Shack recently. (It includes a fun video.)
Follow me on Twitter @OakleySuzyT.