The calendar turns to August, and my friends book a short vacation to celebrate the last weeks of summer, compete in golf tournaments, take in the garage sales, whereas the urge to pickle comes upon me. Specifically, I want to pickle dills. It’s my time. My pickling passion arose from watching my mother pickle peaches, beets, watermelon rind, and cucumbers. We sliced cucumbers and onions and drenched them in a hot sweet vinegar spiced with mustard and celery seeds. We packed the pickles into hot half pint jars and sealed each jar with a twist of our wrist. I remember steam rolling from vats of boiling water, hot liquids and a hot kitchen during the hottest month of the year and the sinus-clearing vapors of spicy vinegar throughout the house.
The dill skill I acquired from my neighbors, the Kratzkes in Minnesota where I lived for a time. The Kratzke family farmed, milked cows and raised healthy children and bountiful gardens in Minnesota Lake Country. In the 1930’s three Kratzke brothers married three young women who lived in the neighborhood of their parents’ farm. My friend Fred Kratzke said, “We could walk 3 miles one way to go to a dance or to court a girl so we all married someone within a 3 mile radius of our home place.” Fred married Elsie, Clarence – Verna, and Bill – Luella. They lived all the years of their long lives within 3 miles of one another, and they gardened with fervor and with a competitive spirit. Food from their gardens fed them throughout the very long and cold Minnesota winters, and their mainstays were sauerkraut from the cabbages they grew in their large gardens, tomatoes, green beans, dried beans and dill pickles. They stored carrots, potatoes, butternut squash and onions in their cellars, and they tasted fresh all through the winter.
A visit with a Kratzke ended with a “lunch.” No matter how I protested, the visit could not end until after “lunch,” and lunch nearly always included a dish of dills and sometimes a slice of freshly baked bread, and maybe a generous portion of homemade smoked sausage, or a plate of smoked white fish, and always three or four stories.
I treasure every memory and especially the stories. Their stories described family mishaps and heroic deeds and silliness or they spoke about hunting and fishing and nearly always they spoke of foods reminiscent of their German heritage. I remember Luella Kratzke asking me to pick cucumbers for dill pickles. She said, “Pick them small, no bigger than my thumb.” Luella’s fingers were long and slim so I estimated the appropriate size cucumber to be 3 ½ to 4 inches in length. We washed the fresh cucumbers in the sink. Packed clean quart jars or even better ½ gallon jars with heads of fresh dill at the bottom of the jar and 1 clove garlic. Align the small cucumbers vertically in the jars. Top with dill and pour over the following boiling hot mixture:
2 cups cider vinegar
6 cups distilled water
1 Tablespoon salt
Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil, boil 2 minutes
Refrigerate and eat after 7 days. Keep refrigerated.
That’s the back story, and now I will tell you my story with the dills. In hot Nebraska, I never see small cucumbers at our Farmer’s Markets. Usual cucumber size is 6 to 8 inches or larger. This year I met the Fecht’s who are superior gardeners. They sell their vegetables at the Holdrege Farmers Market, and the 2nd week of August, thumb-size cucumbers were on display in their booth. I grabbed 4 packages deciding that this year I will answer the call to pickle. I had the foresight to plant dill in my back alley herb garden. I checked the dill and sadly observed that it had turned brown and dry. “Never mind,” I thought. “I know where dill is growing only one block from our house.” On my daily walk to my office I noticed a thriving dill plant growing in front of the florists shop. I gathered the quart jars, bought cider vinegar, collected salt and distilled water, washed the baby cucumbers and scissors in hand I walked to John Rupe’s Florist Shop and was snipping what looked to me like dill when one of John Rupe’s employees, Sharon Johnson said in her quiet voice. “What will you need that for?” I explained, “I’m making dill pickles today, and my dill is dead and dry so I thought I might snip a few heads of the dill growing in this patch.” Sharon said, “But that’s not dill, it is fennel.” “Oh, no,” I thought as I tasted a seed. Fennel looks like a dill plant, but it tastes like licorice and is sweet too. “What if I would have pickled with fennel instead of dill? A disaster diverted!” I thanked Sharon for saving the cucumbers from an ugly fate. Whoever heard of fennel pickles? She said, “It seems to me you need dill, and I know where to get some.” She excused herself from her work at the flower shop. I slid into her car, and she drove to her friends house in east Holdrege where we raved over her thriving garden of grapes, tomatoes, egg plant, yellow squash, onions, carrots, beets, and other plants in her lush garden. There in a side yard at her alley way, we spotted the dill. We asked permission to snip 8 heads of fresh dill and after giving her garden another admiring glance, we returned Sharon to her work place, and me to my pickling place.
Fred Kratzke once said, “Betty, you don’t know you have a neighbor until you ask them for help. “ I feel gratitude for the neighborly ways in my neighborhood.