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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  • Reply Milo V June 2, 2021 at 9:36 pm

    My grandmother had a rule for making Pottsfield pickle. The proportions and ingredients were very similar, but included both red and green bell peppers and omitted the celery. To get the celery flavor her rule included a generous amount of celery seed. My grandmother was from a small town in east central Massachusetts.

    • Reply Nancy Harmon Jenkins June 2, 2021 at 10:05 pm

      I’m so happy to have more news of Pottsfield pickles. Every time I hear about another version, it just makes me happy. Who knows where the name comes from? Is it possible, Milo, that your grandmother had a mother or mother-in-law with a connection to Down East Maine?

  • Reply Charyl Russ December 19, 2021 at 11:55 am

    My grandmother was from Traverse City, MI. They picked the produce from Pottsfield. Her recipe is a little different- no brown sugar and a meat grinder is used on all the produce to name a couple differences – but I love finding Pottsfield Pickle Recipes to compare.

    • Reply Nancy Harmon Jenkins December 19, 2021 at 12:03 pm

      Great to hear this, Charyl. My folks used a meat grinder too but I don’t, mostly because I don’t have one.

  • Reply Brendan Wilkins August 24, 2022 at 12:21 pm

    This is a recipe my mother taught me to make about 50 years ago, using a hand crank meat grinder for the vegetables and canning with old fashioned rubber gasket/glass lid canning jars. Her family called it either Pottersfield Pickle or Piccalilli interchangeably. I try to make it every year. Her mother and grandmother taught her to make it when she was a little girl in the late 1920’s – early 1930’s. I’m not sure if this came down to them from older relatives from Vinalhaven, Maine or was just a central Massachusetts thing. Ours is very similar, but doesn’t have chilis or horseradish in it. Her family made it with white sugar and added a head of cauliflower because my great grandfather liked cauliflower. I was taught to cook the relish until clear and hot pack it in sterile jars. My family loves this served with lots of different things; baked beans, ham, hot dogs, scrambled eggs to name a few.

    • Reply Nancy Harmon Jenkins August 24, 2022 at 12:34 pm

      I love hearing these Pittsfield pickle/relish recipes from all over the country. Vinalhaven is a nice clue to origins. I’m now mostly posting on substack (nancyj.substack.com) but I might put up the Pittsfield pickles post there because it reaches so many more people. Thanks for tuning in–and good luck with your pickle making this year, Brendan.

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