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 learned 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 near 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 a competitive fervor. Food from their gardens sustained them throughout the very long and cold Minnesota winters, and their mainstays were sauerkraut from hundreds of cabbages, tomatoes, green beans, dried beans and dill pickles. They stored carrots, potatoes, butternut squash and onions in their cellars until spring.
Always a visit with a Kratzke ended with a “lunch.” No matter how I protested, I must not leave until after “lunch,” and lunch nearly always included a dish of dills and sometimes a fresh slice of baked bread, and maybe an inch 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 so that she could make some 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. After 7 days, open a jar and eat. Invite a neighbor to share in the delicious delight of the dills. Keep refrigerated.
That’s the back story, and now I will tell you my story with the dills. In hot Nebraska, I don’t 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 in Axtell, and they sell their vegetables at the Holdrege Farmers Market, and they brought packages of thumb-size cucumbers. I grabbed 4 packages deciding that this year I will make dill pickles. 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 walk to my work place I noticed a thriving dill plant growing out of the foundation in front of the florists shop. I gathered the quart jars, bought cider vinegar, collected salt and distilled water, washed the baby cucumbers and set-out to pick dill for the pickles. Scissors in hand I walked to the slice of dirt beside the green house and was snipping what looked to me like dill when one of John Rupe’s employees, Sharon Johnson said in her polite and 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, a disaster forewarned!” 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 a thriving garden of grapes, tomatoes, egg plant, yellow squash, onions, carrots, beets, and other plants too thick and green to identify. 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 to Sharon’s work after only 12 minutes.
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.