Putting up Pickles
Gordon White, 86, stands an imposing 6 feet, 5 inches.
The Pinehurst resident is a World War II veteran, retired New York Times sports reporter, award--winning Pilot columnist, cancer survivor and, paradoxically, a pickle-putter-upper.
White bristles at the implication: "Hobbies and activities crop up in the mostly unlikely places. People enjoy doing all kinds of things (unrelated to their -profession)."
Gardening was the impetus. White grows cucumbers from seed in his backyard, harvests them and puts up a hundred or more pints of bread-and-butter pickles every season.
Time lapse from vine to jar? Four hours.
"I stay out of his way," says wife Jane White. "He even cleans up the kitchen."
Bread-and-butter pickles are a little sweet, a little salty - like White, well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge, quick wit and razor tongue.
White's pickle jars aren't gussied up with gingham bonnets or flowery labels. They don't have a cute name, nor have they won any blue ribbons.
Nevertheless, these pickles are the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, the Final Four of pickledom: slightly crisp, tinged with turmeric, spiked with mustard and celery seeds. White's oeuvre is to commercial bread-and-butters what Granny's iron skillet-fried drumsticks are to KFC.
Yeah, that good.
"The freshest, crispest, sweetest pickles ever," says recipient Dr. Paul Kuzma, who knows White as a volunteer at CareNet.
White's pickles are bestowed, not sold. Only FOGs (friends of Gordon) or worthy organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the radiation oncology staff at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital get a precious jar or two.
"I have a couple of clients," Jane adds. "I ride my bike over to a woman who lives alone."
Cherchez la femme. This pickle propensity traces back to White's mother and wife. He grew up around canning, in New Jersey, with purchased fruit and vegetables.
"My mother put up corn, tomatoes, grape juice, peach preserves," White says. "I was always in the kitchen. She let me test everything."
After retiring to Pinehurst in 1990, the Whites enriched their backyard soil and planted a garden. Jane made the first batches of pickles from a friend's hand-written recipe. Gordon took over soon after.
Canning starts with the cukes. Don't even think about pickling supermarket cucumbers, which go soggy from waxing. White plants the Slim Jim variety, and lets them mature to about seven inches.
"All they have to be is long and green," he says, holding a specimen aloft, like a cricket bat. He prefers bread-and-butter to dills which, he says, must be processed whole.
"Then you have to be very particular about the size of the cucumber," he says.
This was an excellent growing season: a warm winter followed by plenty of heat and rain.
Beginning in July, White tucks his pants into his socks, brandishes a wicked knife and sets about harvesting.
When the basket is full, he brings the cukes inside, where his tools and ingredients - three cauldrons, salt, vinegar, sugar, onions, spices and sterilized jars - await.
Cucumbers are washed and cut into 1/8-inch slices which, with sliced onions, soak in heavily salted water for three hours to remove acid. Slices are then rinsed and boiled for only two minutes in a vinegar-herb brine, which perfumes the house for days. White fills jars to the rim with boiling-hot pickles and liquid, seals them, and waits for the top to pop.
No further processing is required.
Jane keeps cartons of pickle jars labeled by date in her pantry. By spring they are gone.
The Whites prefer their pickles on a sandwich, not alongside. Recipients chop them for tuna, egg or potato salad.
Elvis would slap a fried peanut butter and pickle sandwich into the skillet. B&Bs are suitable for garnishing roast pork, grilled salmon or slipping between a turkey burger and the bun.
Tantalizing flavor opposites have long characterized Pan-Asian cuisines. Sweet-sour arrived with Chinese immigrants, evidenced by the Smithsonian American History Museum's Sweet and Sour Initiative chronicling the popularity of Asian food in the U.S. Sweet-sour pickles became "bread-and-butter" during the Depression, when the staple brightened an otherwise bland diet.
But Gordon White - who also squeezes fresh orange juice and would bake his mother's chocolate cake if he could find the right cocoa - pickles in the present, not the past.
"When you get to be an old bat like me, doing things like this is why I'm still here," he says.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
Bread-and-Butter Pickles, Gordon White's Way
Slice 6-8 medium (unwaxed garden) cucumbers at about 1/8 inch wide per slice. Throw away end pieces. Put slices into a 6-8 quart pot, adding one thinly sliced white onion and ? cup salt. Cover with cold water and stir to mix. Let sit for three hours.
After three hours, mix 3 cups granulated sugar with 3 cups white vinegar in another large pot. Add 2 tablespoons mustard seed, 2 teaspoons celery seed and 1? teaspoons turmeric. (Packets available at Fresh Market or in bulk at natural food stores.) Bring to a hard boil while draining cucumbers and onions through a colander in the sink. Rinse cucumbers and onions well to wash off salt.
Drop cucumbers and onions into boiling vinegar/sugar/herb mixture; bring back to a boil while gently stirring to cover all cukes with liquid. Once at a hard boil, let it boil for 2? minutes and lift from the stove.
About 2? hours into the soaking time, place a large pot of water on stove and bring to a boil. Drop jars into the boiling water after setting aside lids. I recommend pint jars with rubber seal lids from Walmart. Or use pint-sized salsa or medium-sized applesauce jars. Lids on these seal very tightly.
After cucumbers have morphed into pickles following 2? minutes boiling in vinegar, remove pot from the stove and place it in the sink along with three or four jars at a time from the sterilizing pot. Quickly spoon pickles into the jars. Ladle juice to fill each jar to the brim. Clean the threading on top of each jar to remove sticky residue. Use a clean wet dishrag for this. Swipe lids through boiling water for a few seconds, place on jars and tighten.
(Seal is confirmed when tops make a popping sound.)
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