My ancestors were a colorful bunch, but they were not cooks. My Grandma’s grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches and brownies were spectacular. Since we liked them so much, and we only visited her for a week in the summers, that’s all she would make us – for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Inheriting three collections of treasured, sticky recipes tucked into boxes and books seemed like a goldmine. Unfortunately 99% of them called for boxes of JellO, canned condensed soup, and/or Crisco. The only decent cook on either side was my Mother’s Grandmother, Catherine Miller. She was a first generation German/Russian immigrant who came to Washington near the turn of the 20th century. I remember her as a tiny woman with thin dresses and a thick accent. Mom had a few fond memories of rustic cabbagey and noodley dishes, but all I ever remember tasting at her house was second hand smoke.
So how is it that I can, with absolutely no reference material, make what my mother swears are my Great Grandmother’s exact German dill pickles? These are not anything like the pickles most home canners make. In fact, no one I know makes anything similar. They are most like the Kühne Brand Barrel Pickles sold at Bavarian Meats, an institution at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. The fat, sweet and sour pickles became something of an obsession for me as a teenager when I started shopping and working in the vicinity. I couldn’t walk by the shop without stopping in for a pickle from the deli tub. When I decided to try making something similar, I built a brine by mimicking what I saw: some onion, some pickling spice, and lots of mustard seeds. The brine was less pure vinegar than many home recipes. In addition to a splash of water, I added some extra salt and a good deal more sugar than traditional dill pickles call for.
My very first attempt was a success. My mother actually called me out of the blue and said “You make the best goddamn pickles!” That was it. She didn’t want to chat or catch up. She was overwhelmed with pickle joy and memories.
These are not pickles that inspire such passion in others. Most tasters will take a bite or two and maybe mumble some appreciation. Some reel back in horror at the sweetness and unexpected, unfamiliar flavors. I don’t care. My mom and I can polish off a jar in a single setting. I cannot be counted on to make these pickles every year, so she hoards her stash, her pretties, even though I continually promise to make more. I can never quite convince her that eating them will not make them forever disappear. Now she is faced with a new threat to her pickle larder. It seems my niece has inherited the pickle passion. One taste is all it took and she was hooked. Now when she makes the trip to visit Grandma, there is often a ritual opening of a jar, a clandestine pickle gorging. My sister can take them or leave them, but my niece – she gets it.
I just made 22 jars of Great Grandma’s German Dill pickles today. I will restock Mom’s cupboard and for the first time, deliver a shipment directly to my niece. I am oddly proud. Somehow, without ever tasting or experiencing the originals my great grandmother made, I have rekindled and passed on a culinary tradition from my ancestors.