September has arrived and with the waning of summer – harvest is upon us. In spite of the ridiculously hot dry weather we had across much of North America – there is still plenty of bounty to be picked and purchased at market stands across the country side. Cucumbers, beets, peppers, onions, and vegetables I had no idea existed!
Yesterday I drove up and visited my Mum. She is in her 80’s and still lives on her own, and manages her own home. From my childhood, I remember when autumn arrived our kitchen would be filled with the odors of vinegar, sugar and spices. Dozens of jars would be gleaming on the counter. And bushels of cucumbers would be moving from cucumber status to full pickle designation.
Icicle Pickles, Mustard Pickles, Dill Pickles, Garlic Dill Pickles…jar after jar after jar. After the cucumbers would come the other vegetables for pickling including my favourite pickled vegetable: beets.
So I arrive at my Mum’s and what do I find? The scent of vinegar and sugar and spices filling her kitchen. She has a half-bushel of cucumbers well on there way to processing. She has been working on these cucumbers since the night before. At her age she doesn’t move as fast, and she finds she has to rest often. This has not stopped her from continuing her traditions.
Still I have to ask, “what are you doing?”
She looks sheepish and says, “Well I am canning of course – like I do every year.” Then she looks up – “…but it is so hard. It is good you are here you can help me finish.”
So I spent that afternoon with my Mum canning cucumbers – including about 4-quarts of relish!
This is her relish recipe:
6 large cucumbers (cut small, peeled with seeds removed)
1/4 cup salt
2 cups onions, chopped fine
3 cups vinegar
2 cups sugar
3 Tbsps. flour
1 Tbsp. dry mustard
1 Tbsp. tumeric
1 tsp. mustard seed
1 tsp. celery seed
Chop cucumbers and onions into small pieces.
mix together in a large pot with the salt.
Let sit overnight. Rinse salt off and drain.
Now add the other ingredients.
Bring to low boil and the let simmer for about an hour – so the cucumbers are soft but not mushy. Stir the relish often to keep the flour and sugar from sticking.
Ladle into sterilized jars leaving 1/2 from top, and then place lids on jars
Cover with towels to let slowly cool and lids will “pop” when sealed.
Now I had always just thought of these as my Mum’s pickles. But in discussions with a friend who enjoys canning and relish, my friend has mentioned something called “Lady Ashburnham Pickles”
It turns out my Mum’s recipe is a variation on that very relish! The relish is both sweet and spicy which makes it wonderfully versatile. I remember as a child just eating it on a spoon, or spreading it on toast like jam. Apparently I was an odd child!
After we finished our canning for the day, my Mum and I had a coffee. We reminisced about the old farm and her vast gardens. And then she teared up, “This is the last relish I will ever make. I’ve been making it for years now – ever since old Mrs. Ellis showed me how. It is too much work for me now. One pot of relish used to be nothing for me. Now I am so tired I can’t even sit up. I don’t think I am old – and then…and then…” She just sat there silent nodding to herself.
My Mum is a woman who tells stories of when she was 12-years old. How she worked from morning until night in a market garden, in eastern Europe, helping to look after the garden. Watering, hoeing, spreading manure(by hand!), picking vegetables, and anything that needed to be done.
She calmly tells stories of being a child and in the middle of WWII. She tells of the US Air-Force planes flying over and strafing the gardens, and the workers in the fields. “I hated seeing that white star on the planes because I knew I had to run and hide. It is why I wanted to immigrate to Canada when we left Europe. The only thing I hated more than that white star was the red of the Russians as they marched through and took everything we had left. Before they came we were poor – and then we had nothing.”
Here she is now in the peace of her own home, worn down by relish. Well, not exactly by relish itself – rather by time. The relentless passage of time that even when gently ticking past – takes a little bit more away each day.
So I gave my Mum a hug and said, “You know you don’t have to make the relish by yourself. And we don’t have to make as much – maybe just half the recipe. Call me when you want to make more and I can come down. I like the smell of relish cooking – reminds me of the old kitchen we had on the farm.”
She nodded. She smiled. “Yes, yes that would be good. But next year this year I am done. Except for beets. I still have beets to do…”
I stopped her, “Yes Mom, we can do the beets next weekend.” Then I paused and looked at her. “How many beets do you have?”
She pointed to the door leading out to the garage – where a half-bushel of beets sat waiting.
I laughed. “Why on earth, Mom, are you going to pickle that many beets? And why so much relish?”
She looked at me with her usual fierceness when she was standing firm. “It is for the church – the ladies at the church need my pickling to sell at the fall bazaar. We need to fix the roof…”
“Okay, Mom, we’ll do the pickling. For this year. How about next year we get some of the ladies from the church to come over and help? And then they can learn how to pickle beets and make relish.”
She drank her coffee and looked thoughtful. “Yes. Yes that is what we will do. I should teach those ladies how to make relish. Just like Mrs. Ellis showed me. It is the way it is you know – when we can’t do it anymore we have to teach others so they can keep doing it. That way what we know will never be forgotten.”
Whenever I visit my Mum, I leave feeling like I have so much left to learn. I used to think I had all the time in the world to learn it. Now I see time is winding down.