What Goes Around Comes Around

MY mother and father always joined forces, sometime in early autumn, to make these pickles, using produce from their own garden. They had a long wooden chopping bowl, the kind people called a trencher, and a half-moon shaped chopping tool, very sharp, to chop all the vegetables down to just the right size. When the pickle mixture started boiling, the whole house filled with the nose-tingling fragrance of sugary vinegar, cinnamon and cloves. Once the jars were sealed, they were kept in the cellar way for several weeks before they could be opened. My sister and I developed an early technique for using Pottsfield pickles: when we were served mashed potatoes, we divided the portion in half on the plate, smoothed out the bottom, piled on the pickles, and then smoothed the other part over the top to make a Pottsfield pickle sandwich.

Other people might call this piccalilli or tomato relish. I never knew why the Harmons called it Pottsfield pickles but it was definitely a Harmon recipe. Many years later, in the tiny town of Downey, Iowa (population about 30), I was writing a profile of a gifted vegetarian cook. We were at her house, eating leftovers from a feast she’d prepared the day before, when she said: “This would be about perfect if only we had some Pottsfield pickles.”

I said: “How on earth do you know about Pottsfield pickles?”

“It’s my grandmother’s recipe,” she replied.

“And where was your grandmother from?”

“Machias, Maine.”

“Well so was mine!”

And it could be that this is in fact an old Machias recipe. Or at least I like to think that.

Nowadays you can do chop the vegetables quickly in a food processor but do pay attention because otherwise you risk turning everything to mush. And although it’s time-consuming, there’s a certain meditative pleasure in hand-chopping it all.

Pottsfield Pickles

For those who failed grade school math, a pint is 2 cups. This makes a LOT of pickles but they get eaten quickly—and are always a welcome hostess gift. Or you could just halve the recipe. Make sure, before you start cooking, that you have at least a dozen or so scrupulously clean pint canning jars and lids. I run the canning jars through the dish washer and put the lids in a bowl, then fill it with boiling water.

Green tomatoes are immature and will be quite firm, but select red ripe tomatoes that are also firm, in order to avoid too much juice.

  • 2 ½ pints chopped green tomatoes
  • 2 ½ pints chopped ripe tomatoes
  • 5 pints chopped or slivered green cabbage
  • 3 sweet red peppers, seeded and very finely slivered
  • 4 small fresh red chili peppers, seeded and very finely slivered
  • 1 bunch celery, leaves and all, chopped
  • 3 large yellow onions, chopped
  • 1 small (5 ounce) jar horseradish
  • ½ cup pickling salt
  • 5 cups cider vinegar
  • 4 cups brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon powdered cinnamon and ½ teaspoon powdered cloves (or more if you like the spicy flavor)
  • 2 teaspoons powdered mustard
  • ½ cup mustard seed

Chop or sliver all the vegetables and mix together with the horseradish. Combine with the pickling salt and set aside overnight.

In the morning drain the vegetables well (they will have given off a lot of liquid) but don’t rinse them.

In a saucepan large enough to hold all the ingredients, bring to a boil the vinegar, sugar, cinnamon and clove. Mix a little of the hot liquid with the powdered mustard in a small bowl and stir to blend well (this keeps the mustard powder from clumping up in the pickling mix). When it’s smooth and syrupy, stir it into the vinegar mix along with the mustard seeds.

Have ready a dozen pint pickling jars and lids that you’ve sterilized with boiling water.

Once the pickling liquid is simmering away, add the chopped vegetables and bring back to a simmer. Simmer for just 5 or 10 minutes, depending on how finely you’ve chopped the vegetables. You want them to keep a slightly crunchy texture.

When the vegetables are done, remove them carefully while still very hot and transfer to the sterilized jars. Screw down the lids and wait for them to ping. (Any jars that don’t ping should be kept in the refrigerator and used within a couple of weeks, but the vinegar keeps the mix from spoiling so no further processing is necessary.)

NB: If you don’t have enough liquid to fill all the jars, bring a cup of vinegar and ¾ cup of brown sugar to a boil and use that to top up the pickles.


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