Bread and Butter Pickles

Helen's pickle jars

I hear the hum of the refrigerator and the noise of the fan above the stove. For most of the evening, I have also heard the voices inside my head that question whether I measure up in this world.

I get a pot of sliced cucumbers and onions out of the refrigerator. The salt water brine has made the cucumbers bright green and the onions bright white. I think of all the time I spent slicing them a few hours ago.

My heart is filled with nostalgia. I am a child again and observing my grandmother, DeElda, and other neighborhood women who gardened.

I feel smug. It is neat to take jars of bread and butter pickles to church meals. They seem a symbol of something about the past, an inner yearning, something virtuous and related to hospitality. And it’s a locavore thing. The cucumbers and onions are from my garden. They traveled zero miles from farm to the kitchen counter. No fossil fuels burned. No packaging. No time to lose their freshness. I picked some of the cucumbers yesterday and others this evening. I pulled the onions from the ground tonight.

I am fortunate to have a large lot with great topsoil and sunlight. Fortunate to have the time and health to garden, people I can turn to for advice, good kitchen facilities, excellent city water and electricity. Fortunate that I can afford the canning jars, vinegar, sugar, and spices. I am also fortunate to have many outlets to share my pickles and to have come upon a recipe from the Ball cookbook that is so successful.

It’s slow, methodical work. The kitchen is hot and humid. I appreciate the overhead fan and the air that brushes the back of my neck. I wipe the rims of the jars, put lids on, then tighten the jar bands.

People ask if they can buy pickles from me. I say “no, but here, I would be happy for you to have this jar.” It is a conundrum. I am honored, but I don’t want to even consider the true cost in terms of chicken wire, posts, other garden materials, tools, time, utilities, jars and lids, and the many ingredients. I doubt if a jar of my pickles could be considered either sustainable or frugal. What is important is the process. I am content to stay close to home and spend long hours in my garden, connecting with nature, with little desire travel hundreds of miles to a resort. Growing cucumbers and onions and making the pickles gives me great satisfaction. It is also a great reward to give pickles to people I know who appreciate them. Their satisfaction in having the pickles completes the circle and affirms my work in the garden and the kitchen.

It is well past midnight. The kitchen is hot. I begin to question whether this is really fun and meaningful. I am glad the doors and windows are open. I can hear crickets and cicadas.

Finally, I lift each jar of treasure out of the canning bath and set it on a drying rack. Within a few minutes all the lids have popped, a sign that the jars are all safely sealed.

My cat Micah roams into the kitchen and looks around. She has no clue what I am doing and is not impressed with the seven jars of pickles.

I take scraps to the compost pile. My yard light and the neighborhood street lights allow me to see my way into the shadows at the back of the lot. I hear an owl. The compost bin smells of an earthy pungency. The five laying hens are all asleep in their chicken hotel. I return to the house with empty bucket in hand. Enjoying the cool air. Appreciating my urban farm. The grass underfoot is moist. I step into the porch. I leave my shoes there.

I put the jars into a kitchen cupboard where the cats can’t visit them during the night.

I get a drink of water and turn off the ceiling fan. I am weary but proud. I want to go to bed and wonder which of the four cats, if any, will want to join me. I am also hungry but don’t have the ambition to find a snack.

I am done with pickling and cleaning at 2 am.

Micah has quietly hopped into the clean sink. “Lordy,” she must be saying, “Helen, go to bed.”

Then she moves to a far counter and crawls in a pick-your-own strawberry box. Then gently back to me as if she wants to give me a kiss.