March 25, 2010

A pickle of this…a pickle of that

scan0002 Everybody thinks his or her grandma is the world's best cook. That's what we're supposed to think. One of the perks of being a grandmother (I have gathered) is to be thought of as the world's best cook by a couple of generations worth of people. For all of you ladies out there who are worried that you might not be in the running for this title, just will be the world's best cook when you become a grandma (or a great-aunt or great-grandma or whatever). My problem (really more of a blessing) is having had too many grandmas who were all the world's best cooks. What is it about coming around the table together to enjoy good food that has the power to really connect us? Whether it is with family, friends or friends who are like family, it never fails to make me feel like I belong somewhere. In his wonderful cookbook Back to the Table, Art Smith describes the dinner table as

"a familiar, uncomplicated, and friendly place where we can celebrate family, friends, food, and life's many blessings."

One of my life's blessings is having such wonderful memories spent around the table of my great-grandmother Genia Whiteaker. Grandma Whiteaker could cook (and bake) just about anything. From her famous Christmas morning breakfasts to her weekday dinners (eaten at mid-day, but don't call it lunch), I never had a meal at her house that wasn't oh so good. {ok, one time she tried to serve me one of those gel-type candles because she thought it was a jar of peach preserves...lesson: warning labels that say 'do not eat' should always be in very large print}

Anyway, of all her delicious dishes and baked treats, the one that remains most vivid in my memory is hardly a dish at all. It doesn't even have a recipe. Simply put, it is cucumbers and onions, sliced up and swimming in vinegar. It might not sound very special. You can't even call it pickles.cucumbers But something about this staple being on the table with every meal (maybe not breakfast) stuck with me. Maybe it was knowing that she had taken the time to put it all together, maybe it was the familiar sight of that rectangular plastic container in which she always kept it, maybe it just tasted good. Somehow this dish went with matter what the main attractions of the meal happened to be, there was always room on your plate for some cucumbers and onions. And if everything on your plate was sort of swimming in vinegar, all the better.

I have tried making my grandma's version of cucumbers and onions many times. Sometimes its close to perfect. Other times not so much. I can't give the recipe because there isn't one. If you'd like to try it, peel and cut some small-ish sized cucumbers into chunks (the small ones are less likely to be bitter). Then cut up a big white onion into medium sized chunks as well. Mix some vinegar, water and sugar (the sugar dissolves better if you heat this mixture) and pour it over the cucumbers and onions. It gets better if it soaks for awhile, but never lasts very long at my house.

If you'd like a real recipe for something you can pickle, I recently made some pickled grapes from the Lee Brothers Cookbook, Simple Fresh Southern (they have a whole section devoted to pickling all sorts of interesting things). Anyway, I can't remember my grandma ever making this, but I think she'd have liked it.

bunch of grapes

Pickled Grapes with Rosemary and Chiles

    • 6 cups red and green grapes
    • 2 cups white vinegar
    • 2 Tbsp salt
    • 2 tsp sugar
    • 3 cloves garlic (crushed)
    • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
    • leaves from a sprig of rosemary

Pack grapes into containers with lids. Heat vinegar with 1 cup water over medium heat. Add salt, sugar, garlic, red pepper, and rosemary. When mixture simmers, remove from heat and pour over grapes. Cover loosely and cool to room temperature. Cover tightly and refrigerate 1 hour. Will keep for 2 weeks.


{me as a bunch of grapes, Halloween c. 1988}