It’s been a dozen years or more since I last ate one of my mom’s pickles. They were the best I have ever tasted: crisp at the bite and perfectly piquant. Until I left home, the quart-size jars that held them were an unremarkable presence in our refrigerator, like mayonnaise or jelly. As a teenage boy growing up in Temple, I consumed these pickles with little regard to origin. What did I care how they got there?
Because I couldn’t have known that there wouldn’t be more, the occasion of that very last pickle came and went without due ceremony. What was to be the final jar arrived with my mom on a visit to Austin sometime before her death, in 2005. I figured I had lost the pickles when I lost her—until a few years later, when, going through some boxes, I came across a recipe for “Kosher Dill Pickles” attributed to Sammie Marshall, an old family friend and a former first lady of Temple.
This was it! The secret to the pickles! But with only a brief thought of one day using it myself, the recipe went into another box and back into storage. More years passed, and then I ran into Sammie, now in her mid-eighties, at a birthday party in Salado. When I mentioned the pickles, she lit up. The formula, she said, had been handed down through generations of Temple’s best kitchens. It had been used by Doris Floca, who got it from her mother-in-law, Mama Floca. Edna Thompson had also used it, and passed it on to Sammie. The way it worked best was when Mrs. Hruska, in Zabcikville—on the blackland prairie east of Temple—called on a May afternoon to let you know that she had a bushel or two of pickling cucumbers ready for harvesting. You’d drive out that day, bring them home to wash, and put them in jars with fresh—it had to be very fresh—dill and the rest of the ingredients.
How funny, Sammie said with a chuckle, that my mother made the pickles herself just one time. What? My mom hadn’t made all those pickles? They had all come from Sammie? I was shocked. Thinking on it later, though, I can’t say I was really that surprised; while my mother kept me and my brothers fed, she was no devotee of the kitchen. Still, in my heart, I’ll always remember how the best pickles I have ever tasted, made with a mother’s love—by Sammie Marshall—came from my mom, who would have laughed at this story for a long, long time.
Use about half a bushel of fresh garden cucumbers—not ones from the grocery store that have been waxed. Wash and scrub cucumbers with cold water, removing all dirt and blossoms. Dry well.
Using sterilized quart-size jars, place the following into each jar:
1 small lump alum
1 whole garlic clove
1 hot red pepper (chile pequins are good) or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper
1 large sprig fresh dill
1/2 to 1 teaspoon whole allspice (Sammie uses 1/2)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns (Sammie uses 1/2)
Combine the following in a large saucepan:
2 quarts water
1 quart white vinegar (such as Heinz)
3/4 cup canning salt
Get the liquid very hot but do not boil. In the meantime, pack the cucumbers into the jars, then fill to the top with liquid. (Make more liquid as needed until all cucumbers have been used.) Take a damp cloth and wipe around rims of jars. (Sammie dips the lids in boiling water to make a better seal.) Screw on caps tightly. Store for at least a month before consuming.