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Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Taste of a Poem

watermelon pickles

You can grow a lot of crops in the Valley but watermelon isn’t one of them. Cucumbers, their kissin’ cousins, do well. Season’s too cool and short for melon production; even if the gardener’s lucky, tomatoes end up fifty-fifty red and green at season’s end. Explains all the recipe books on the many ways to cook, can, and preserve green tomatoes. Watermelon thrives in climes of hot days and warm nights. Here in the Valley a melon crop could only come from an artificially enhanced climate: green house, that is to say. If it can’t grow in the backyard garden, it has low priority in this household (this year I wrote off okra as a lost cause). However because of a poem I read years ago, I have been long intrigued by a watermelon by-product. The subject and sentiment of that poem inspired me to don a kitchen apron and launch myself into a recipe that would result in a batch of watermelon pickles.

John Tobias’s“Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity,”is a seasonal lament, a longing for summer, for those lazy hot months, represented in his poem by the hallmark fruit of the season—when “watermelons ruled.” “Reflections…” evokes not only summer but summers long since fled, “when unicorns were still possible;” the summers of six cents a pound watermelon, family picnics when we spat or tiddly-winked black seeds from thumb and forefinger. Our chins, those days, were none the worse for being sweetness-stained from the cold juice; our backs youth-resilient to the bent postures we assumed to deflect the flow of liquid from clothing or bare chest, allowing it to dribble to the ground in thick drops. You knew what flesh was prime and plumbed the pink depths until you reached the core, the heart, where the sweetness dwelt. Remember the paper plates with the teeth gnawed leavings, the green crescent rinds, their inner curves a blushing pink. These we discarded in trash cans, the rinds sometimes pitched into nearby weeds where ants soon peppered them. Could one pack that much memory in a jar of pickled rinds, I wondered? I thought I’d give it a try.

Like anything else homemade, I found time was the ingredient most required here; there’s no microwave swiftness possible in preparing a batch of watermelon pickle. I began by removing the flesh from one medium-sized watermelon (on sale at Freddie’s but not at the six cents a pound we paid in the 1950’s), set it aside for “future use,” and then set about paring the skin from the rind. Next, I chopped the peeled rind into one inch chunks (12 cups required; I used it all). Then I prepared an ice water salt brine in which I steeped the rind for eight hours. After the eight hour brine bath, I rinsed the rind thoroughly in cold water and prepared the pickling brine: sugar, white vinegar, a spice packet of cloves and allspice (whole), which I brought to a boil and then poured over the watermelon rind. Added one whole lemon, thinly sliced  to the mix and steeped for another eight hours. (In the the meantime I needed a good night’s rest.)

The next day I placed brine, spice packet, lemon and product into a large kettle, brought the mixture to a boil, reduced the heat and let the whole business simmer for another hour. The end was in sight now. I ladled the hot pickles into wide-mouthed pint jars, popped a whole stick of cinnamon in each jar and processed the seven pints in a steam canner for fifteen minutes. And though I was considerably older than when I started, the end result looked quite appealing.


finished pickles





Double pickle

Now the jars sit in the dark in the garage pantry, waiting until some snowbound January evening, when the nights are long and cold and the winter tiresome. Then in the warmth of the woodstove’s glow, I will open a jar of watermelon pickle and discover if:

The summer which maybe never was

Has been captured and preserved

And when we unscrew the lid

And slice off a piece

And let it linger on our tongue;

Unicorns become possible again.”

And if Tobias’s claim proves true, I’m sure I’ll find a friend I can gift with my watermelon pickle, brush aside the misery of winter, cast off the dreariness of spring, and bring a burst of summer rushing to the tongue.

Pickle trio

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  1. Today I was lucky enough to take a class from you and you read the poem (mentioned in the post above) to those of us in the class. Your class left me very inspired to keep learning all I can about food preservation! Thank you!

  2. Thanks, Lynn. It was good to be able to share some of the Valley produce and tips on how to preserve it. Although there was considerable material to cover in a limited amount of time, I believe I covered the main points. I'm glad you enjoyed the class. Have fun canning and preserving food with and for your family. TJ