When my Grandpa Orville retired from corn and soybean farming, he moved into town and started cucumber farming. That’s what retired farmers do. They find a way to keep farming. He had ten or so acres of cucumbers that he grew for Gedney Foods. Gedney must have put their feelers out, because he wasn’t alone in this venture. Cucumbers were the hot thing in south central Minnesota during the 1980’s.
Orville’s place eventually became the neighborhood grading station. Every night after picking, he’d fire up the rickety grader and trucks from around the area would start rolling in to have their harvests weighed and sorted. It was mesmerizing to stand at the edge of the conveyor belt and watch hundreds of cukes bobble along, gradually dropping off into their designated bushel baskets below. My favorites, of course, were the miniatures – the ones that got turned into crunchy “baby dills.”
My brother was partial to the big yellow hogs – the ones far too overgrown for anything useful beside chucking at random objects (sisters excluded). He was a master at firing them onto the tines of farm implements. Ah, to sit in the cucumber shed next to your big brother, drinking a cold Bubble Up, and be carefree again. Take me back.
When my brother and I got a little older, someone in our family (no doubt our father) decided it would be a good experience for us to try our hand at farm labor. We were shipped off to Grandma and Grandpa’s on the Greyhound bus for a week of paid cucumber picking. I’m pretty sure this was my first ever real-life eye opening experience. Wow. Cucumbers have prickly spines. The sun gets really hot. There is no shade in a cucumber field. It matters when you get paid by volume. I was full of revelations that summer.
It became instantly clear that my brother and I were no match for the Mexican laborers we worked beside. Their stamina was unbelievable. And they didn’t even wear the silly gardening gloves that I fussed with – on and off, on and off. But unlike me and my brother, who were working for pocket change, they were working to support their families. Kids much younger than us were putting in full, hot days. And they were always laughing to boot. I acquired an early admiration for immigrant farm workers.
I don’t know if it’s still the case, but according to the history page on Gedney’s website, they were rejecting machine-picked cucumbers as late as 1988. That was also the year, incidentally, they declared themselves the official source of “The Minnesota Pickle.” Does every state have an official pickle? Things to ponder the next time you bite into a kosher dill.
My whole adult life I’ve wanted to be a pickler. A really good pickler. Every sumer I embark with enthusiasm on major pickling projects. Unfortunately what generally results is a load of poor, mushy pickles. Occasionally I’ve turned out some mediocre pickles. But I’ve never come close to the perfect pickle. I’ve tried so many methods and recipes that I’m almost ready to raise the flag of pickle defeat. Almost.
My only saving hope is that I can, without fail, make a relatively crisp and very tasty fridge pickle. I guess it is still considered pickling, but it always feels like cheating. I’d rather be skimming the film off the top of the crock in the cellar, or filling the larder with sealed jars. As it is, I have to settle for cramming as many quart jars as I can into the fridge every fall, knowing my tangy slices will keep well into the winter.
I’ve adapted my recipe over the years to use honey instead of white sugar, but either one works. If you’re using honey, make sure that it is nice and viscous, without a trace of crystallization. You can even warm it gently if you’re in doubt. This ensues that it won’t solidify later in the chilled brine.
Sweet and Tangy Fridge Pickles
1 1/2 cups honey (runny and viscous) or 1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 cups vinegar (white, cider or a mix)
1/4 cup kosher salt
3/4 scant teaspoon turmeric
3/4 scant teaspoon celery seed
3/4 scant teaspoon mustard seed
2 small onions, thinly sliced
20 or so 4-5″ cucumbers (about 3 pounds)
Scrub the cucumbers well and refresh for a bit in an ice water bath.
While your cukes are cooling, mix honey, vinegar and spices. Do not heat (if you warmed the honey to liquify it, let it cool before you brine the cukes).
Trim the blossom end from cucumbers, and peel alternating stripes, leaving some of the peel intact. Dice into chunky coins. Mix sliced onions and cucumbers together. Pack into 2 clean quart jars. You may need to start a third jar, but as the vegetables settle and brine, they will shrink a bit, allowing you to pack more in.
Pour the room temperature brine over cukes. Seal with lids and let rest in fridge for a few days before eating, turning jars occasionally to mix brine and spices. You can keep adding fresh cucumbers to the jars when there is room. Pickles will stay crisp and flavorful for several month in fridge.