There was this one time when we shared some drinks with Oxford, Mississippi chef/restaurateur John Currence and somehow portions of the conversation ended up in an interview. It was one of the best we’ve ever run. The point? Get this man talking and exciting things happen. To get this man writing? Well, you’ve got yourself a page-turner. His new book, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey, touches on many aspects of the chef’s life — from being raised in New Orleans to living and cooking throughout Western Europe to living and breathing the Southern food ways from his unique vantage in Mississippi. Here, he writes about an early encounter with pickles.
I’m not entirely sure that pickles are not somehow part of my DNA. I have loved them from my earliest possible memory. That being said, and before my brother, Richard, goes public with statements discrediting my claim, I was a sweet-pickle lover as a youngster. Richard and my dad shared a beautiful bond over the sour pickle, but my mother and I loved the sweet ones. These were most definitely delineated sides, and though we did not fully understand the others’ fascinations, we most certainly met in the middle at the kosher dill.
My maternal grandparents exposed me first to the wider array of things pickled. As a city boy, I was most familiar with the cucumber and glimpsed the occasional pickled egg and pig’s foot on the way to hunting or fishing camp in south Louisiana, but these things were infamous for their effects on the digestive system, so they were eyed with reverence and suspicion. I never experimented with them in the company of my mother, for fear of indiscretion.
My grandparents pickled to preserve the precious summer vegetables through the lean growing months of the year. They turned okra into delicate little whole pickles, corn into piccalilli, hot peppers into sport sauce, and green tomatoes into chow-chow — to mention a few items. The basement of their house was like a cathedral to me. It was filled with things mysterious that had been long forgotten, and makeshift shelves of salvaged weatherboards sagged under the weigh of mason jars filled with my grandmother’s pickles. The afternoon sun illuminated those jars like primitive stained glass and hypnotized me every time I was down there.
It was on one of those afternoons that I spied a jar of peaches just out of my reach. I was a lover of the Del Monte variety, which my dad would frequently feed us, allowing us to slurp the syrup straight from the can. My greedy little brain went to work…nobody would ever know if I made just one of those hundreds of jars my very own. I was a kid let loose in a candy shop. I stacked boxes and climbed to where I could reach my prize, and in a fit of glutinous stupidity, I tried to wrestle the top from the Kryptonite-sealed vessel while still perched atop my fragile pyramid. In doing so, I managed to bring down my mountain of moron along with an entire shelf and dozens of jars.
In the puddle of vinegar and syrup I lay, stunned but unhurt. My grandmother waddled in as I began to rise out of the muck, jar of peaches still in hand, intact. Understanding my plight, she effortlessly wrung the top free and popped a slice into my mouth. A new world of pickled possibility opened to me in that moment, and, for a hot second, I forgot I would probably get my butt torn up for the damage I had done.
We pickle everything now, from shiitakes to sweet potato, from chicken to chayote. Some are added to salads, others to sauces. Some are simple garnishes, while others are main components. Whatever the case may be, they can all stand alone and are some of the most prized snacks in the kitchen.
Bread And Butter Pickles
Makes 1 quart
Growing up, we were a house divided. My dad and brother loved sour pickles, and my mother and I loved sweet ones. There were always loads around, but I remember tasting bread-and-butter pickles for the very first time and realizing that I could easily slide toward the dill and even ultimately align myself with my dad and brother. I would become a pickle double agent. Bread-and-butter pickles are very similar to traditional sweet pickles but use onion, garlic, turmeric, and mustard seed in the pickling liquid and an overnight salt brine to give a slightly more savory bent to these delicious little babies.
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon pickling lime (see Notes)
4 cups Japanese cucumbers, sliced ½ inch thick (see Notes)
2½ cups apple cider vinegar
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1½ teaspoons red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon celery seeds
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the salt, pickling lime and 1½ cups water in a nonreactive bowl and stir to dissolve. Add the cucumbers, cover well and refrigerate in the brine overnight. When ready to continue with the recipe, drain and rinse the cucumber slices in fresh water three times.
2. In a large nonreactive saucepan, combine ¾ cup water with the vinegar, shallot, garlic, sugar, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, celery seeds, turmeric and black pepper. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil. Add the cucumbers and bring back to a simmer; cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool in the liquid.
3. Ladle the pickles into a quart-size jar and cover completely with the liquid, filling the jar to just below the neck. The pickles will keep, refrigerated, for 10 to 12 months. Alternatively, to prepare the pickles to store at room temperature, fill a water-bath canner or large pot with a lid with water and bring to a boil over high heat. (If you have a rack that fits the canner, use it, or simply line the bottom with a kitchen towel to prevent the jars from banging around during canning.) Carefully place the empty jars, lids, and rings in the water, filling the jars with the water to submerge them. Boil for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the jars and lids with canning tongs from the bath, dumping the water back into the bath. Briefly drain the jars on a clean kitchen towel. Fill the jars first with the pickles, and then pour their pickling liquid over them, filling to just below the neck of the jars. Wipe the rims clean, place the lids on top, and screw the rings onto the jars just finger-tight.
4. Return the jars to the canning bath, making sure the water covers the jars by at least 1 inch. Once the water returns to a boil, simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the jars from the bath and let cool to room temperature. Canned this way, the pickles will keep for up to 1 year. Before opening a can of room temperature–stored food product, always check to make sure the seal is still good. With mason-type jars, the lid should be indented and not “pop” when pushed on. If it appears the seal is not good, discard the contents of the jar.
Notes: The pickling lime can be omitted. It just yields a crisper pickle. You can use English seedless cucumbers or traditional American pickling cucumbers and achieve the same results.
From Pickles, Pigs, & Whiskey: Recipes From My Three Favorite Food Groups (and then some) by John Currence/Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC