It’s love and pickles.
Can Your Wedding
by Elspeth Hay
Courtesy of Elspeth Hay
The man I love owns a restaurant; I write about cooking. In the weeks after he asked me to marry him, there was very little talk about the dress, or the band, or which color roses I might carry down the aisle.
No, planning our wedding was all about food. We stayed up at night talking about what kind of fall cocktails we could make with Maine potato vodka, whether there would still be arugula on November 7, and if it would be tastier to stuff and grill whole haddock or cod. Oh! and the pickle bar. We spent many, many evenings discussing the pickle bar.
In retrospect, I should have known when I agreed to marry Alex that there’d be pickles involved. The man eats pickles the way most people eat potato chips—give him a jar of thinly sliced bread and butters, and they’re sure to disappear.
So we were going to have a pickle bar, and I was going to can the pickles.
I should tell you before we get much further that this was not going to be a small affair. Alex has a big family—a 12 first cousins family—and there were going to be 180 guests in all. Luckily, I feel about making pickles the way Alex feels about eating them—there can never be quite enough jars on the shelf. There is something immensely satisfying about heating up a pot of water, washing a pile of local produce, and putting it up for later in carefully sealed jars. I figured it could only be more satisfying with my own wedding involved.
Our mothers weren’t so sure. Alex’s told us we were crazy; mine asked if we had any idea how much work was involved. Once she realized there was no talking us out of it, though, she agreed to pitch in jars and labor and go ahead and help.
The first order of business was to decide what kinds of pickles we’d make. Pickles do not necessarily involve cucumbers— pickled okra and beets are top-notch in my opinion—but there were a few musts on the list. Alex’s grandfather made killer bread ’n butters, with paper-thin cucumbers and a brine that’s part salty, part sweet. His grandmother had passed down the recipe to me, and the fact that I’d mastered them was, quite possibly, why Alex had decided it was time to get married in the first place.
Second on the list were my mother’s pickled beets. They’re originally from Putting Food By, and in addition to being sweet and soft and absolutely the most beautiful color you’ve ever seen, they are also incredibly easy. They’re made in a sweet brine with just enough cloves and onions to give a subtle undertone of spice. From there things got a bit more tricky. Should we do my great-grandmother Maw-maw’s pickled green tomatoes? Something dilly and not so sweet? Relishes? Pickled onions? Something more like chutney?
In the end, we took our cues from volunteer-picklers. My friend Tracy had a wonderful pickled baby carrot recipe that she offered to make. She also had a big crop of slow ripening cherry tomatoes, so we could adapt Maw-maw’s recipe and do pickled green cherry tomatoes, instead of the big ones. My mother would do the beets, I’d do Brad’s Bread ’n Butters, and a farmer friend gifted me enough green beans to make eight quarts of Dilly Beans. We would serve the pickles in ramekins, accompanied by a spicy rhubarb chutney, plenty of crackers and local honey, and an absolutely tantalizing spread of all-New-England cheeses.
Then came the work. Making a pickle buffet for 180 involves a fair amount of boiling and sweating, and an inordinate amount of Mason jars. I used quarts to make for fewer tops in need of sealing. I tried but failed to pick the coolest days, and found that a mandolin is a life-saver when it comes to large quantities of thinly sliced cucumbers. I went through an unreasonable amount of sugar, and an even more appalling quantity of Heinz white vinegar.
All in all, I put up eight quarts of dilly beans, four quarts of pickled beets, and sixteen jars (pints and quarts) of Brad’s Bread ’n Butters. My friend Tracy made five quarts of pickled carrots and seemingly countless pints of pickled green cherry tomatoes, and my mom chipped in her spicy rhubarb chutney and a few extra jars of sweet pickled beets. It was a spectacular group effort.
The funny thing is that in the end, I never even saw the pickles all set up. Alex and I were so busy outside on the lawn hugging and hand-squeezing and grinning that we never did make it inside during cocktail hour to take a peek. I didn’t taste the cherry tomatoes, or have a cracker with one of Brad’s Bread ’n Butters, or pile together a toothpick of pickled beets and goat cheese. But I have heard stories and seen the pictures, and from everything I’ve heard, it was great. Even more special, I like to think, than I always knew it would be.