I canned seven pints of piccalilli today, following two old family recipes. As with most family recipes, they make no sense. But after a bunch of roundabout instructions, random amounts of ingredients and other “be sure to’s,” there’s a line at the bottom: “You can’t spoil it.”
True enough. This stuff has enough acid, sugar and salt in it to survive World War III.
The base for this sweet and sour relish is green tomatoes, as piccalilli is meant to use up all the veggies from your garden at the end of the season. I picked all my Roma tomatoes yesterday, saving anything red or almost red for one last batch of spaghetti sauce. The rest went into the piccalilli pot, along with a green and a red bell pepper, a couple of onions, and some broccoli stalks. Everything took a whirl in the food processor, before being salted, drained, and boiled in white vinegar with more salt, what seems like way too much sugar, a pickling spice sack and a generous palmful of mustard seeds. I hot-packed the relish into sterilized pint jars and processed them in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes.
They’re sitting on a beach towel because after they’re processed, I swaddle them in a heavy towel so they can cool very slowly.
I learned to can at my great-aunt’s knee. She had a kind of subsistence farm in rural New Hampshire, where growing and canning food was a matter of survival. I’d visit for two weeks every August to help her harvest, process and can her food. She had a special set-up in her basement with a giant hand-crank Foley Food Mill and some pressure- and boiling-water canners. It was hot, dirty, dangerous work. I loved it.
One time, we worked all day and went to bed early, only to be awakened by the sound of smashing glass. In the basement, we discovered that a jar of tomatoes we’d canned that day had exploded, in turn smashing several others around it. We’d forgotten to swaddle the jars and had left the basement windows open, letting some damp cold mountain air invade the space. We cleaned up the mess in our nightgowns, glass crinkling underfoot, the stinky tomato guts all warm and slimy.
I laid awake for much of the night, convinced that more jars would expolde.
The next day, my great-aunt inspected all the other tomato jars and decreed that the exploded jar was defective. She sent me home with several jars of what we’d put up, and I was afraid the whole long ride home that another explosion was imminent. To this day, I swaddle my jars overnight.
Some years, I don’t get around to making piccalilli or canning anything else. For one thing, a freezer is a much better option for preserving food nowadays. (We rarely have power outages; Every winter she’d be out of power for at least a week.) For another, I really don’t need to do this time-consuming, archaic chore. I don’t live off my food I grow or even care about it that much. But then I look around my home and think about all my blessings, and think about where I have come from and where so many of my relatives still are – scraping by, yearning for the past, feeling like a stranger in the here-and-now. I and so I make some piccalilli, using the old recipes, for Christmas gifts that are truly appreciated.