Piccalilli day

ALTHOUGH this has been the year of the big green tomato, our home will not rebound as usual to the wild cry of the cooking piccalilli. ``Seems like a fine idea to lay by some piccalilli,'' I said, and she demurred that some jars were left over from two years ago, and a lot from last year, and she didn't have shelf room. So we've skipped this year, and I haven't experienced that glad afternoon -- one of the finest of the culinary year -- when I step in from a bright fallish environment and the powerful exuberance of residual piccalilli gusto slaps me between the eyes and makes me glad. There is certainly no other day any more memorable than piccalilli day.

And this was the year. I never did get to pick a vine-ripened tomato, and other gardeners tell me theirs were reluctant, too. I gathered the green ones, and plenty of them, before our first frost, and some have turned red on the windowsills, but there was something about the past summer that tomatoes didn't like. Some think it was lack of sufficient sunlight, and I think it may have been the late start after a wet and unpropitious spring. Green tomatoes have been so plentiful that the Extension people hustled all sorts of green tomato recipes to the local newspaper -- including some for piccalilli.

Which caused Barbara Whitney to telephone to my wife. ``This here receet in the paper,'' she said, ``kind-er makes me wonder. You make a good piccalilli. Can't you give me your receet?''

The dictionary has already supplied me with the spelling of piccalilli, and the definition says it is a highly seasoned pickle of East Indian origin made of chopped vegetables. Here in Maine it is the Saturday night confection meant to go with baked beans. Now and then somebody uses it otherwise, and it helps along a hot dog, but baked beans without piccalilli are a cake without frosting.

My wife told Barbara that she has a number of piccalilli recipes, not two alike and all different, but that it's hard to find one that isn't good. Barbara said, ``Give me the one you use.''

What makes the kitchen heavenly on piccalilli day is the lingering commingling of sweetened hot cider vinegar with its charge of mixed pickling spices. The vegetables are simply green tomatoes (1 peck), 4 sweet peppers, and 12 onions -- chopped. Some put them through a meat grinder, and some don't. Some say a meat grinder is the only way, and some say it spoils everything. My wife told Barbara, ``I use my mother's recipe. I've got others from other mothers, and John's mother's, but I use my mother's.''

Barbara said, ``What did you just say?''

My wife added, ``Then I have a good one from the Mizpah Class Centennial Cook Book.''

Next followed the reading of items and the pauses while Barbara wrote things down.

There was an interruption between the onions and the draining of the mixture while the women discussed the voyage of Economy to Jacksonville. Paul Wolter was taking his yacht to Florida for the winter, and our friends Dick and Betty went along to crew. Seems they reached the canal in the nighttime and had a bit of trouble finding it, and then contrary winds for a few days. But post cards came from North Carolina to ease wonderment, and a few days later Paul called home to say Economy was on mooring and all hands in good humor. Then my wife told Barbara to drain all overnight.

Next morning, she said, add 8 cups of sugar and pour on vinegar to cover.

Barbara said, ``I got it!''

My wife said, ``Then you simmer for three hours.''

``That's when the house begins to smell so good!'' Barbara said.

``No, not yet,'' said my wife. ``Let it simmer for three hours and then you add one 10-cent package of mixed pickling spices. That's when the house revs up.''

``Add what?'' said Barbara.

``A 10-cent package of pickling spice.''

``You're out-a your mind!''

``I'm reading my mother's own handwriting.'' P.S. Friendship Market now charges $1.75 for a 10-cent package of mixed pickling spices.

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