Every year around the end of September or the first week of October it is time to do some canning. People can everything from vegetables, fruit, meat or fish. There are thousands of recipes and hundreds of variations on those. But the favorite item to can around the east end of Winona, Minnesota seems to be the pickle. There seems to be every kind of pickle imaginable; sweet pickles, dill pickles, garlic pickles, big pickles, small pickles, sliced pickles, speared pickles, pickles, pickles, and more pickles.
Two of my friends pickle pickles together every year. One is a staunch traditionalist, the other a compulsive experimenter. They start the best of friends and set aside a weekend for the solemn event. That is where Round One begins. Each has the absolute best source for the best pickles at the best price.
First, the traditionalist can not tolerate any variations in the source, size, recipe or any detail at all. The experimenter must change things with every batch. Although they both use the same family recipe their methods are as different as night and day. The traditionalist insists on getting his pickles from his cousin, who may or may not come through. The experimenter prefers to shop around for the best deal and product.
These conflicting points of view alone are good for at least two weeks of arguing, ranting and raving. Once the pickles are obtained there ensues the protracted struggle devoted to the cleaning and sorting of the pickles. This ordeal may last for days. There is endless squabbling over the methods and thoroughness of the cleaning and sorting process. Each pickler has the perfect process and the other’s, “Ain’t worth a crap”. This process is sometimes so time consuming that the entire batch may spoil and become unusable during the vicious infighting and another batch may need to be obtained; thus the whole ritual begins again.
Finally, our picklers, exhausted from screaming, ranting and cussing at one another for days, have beat each other down enough to come to a compromise. When that point is reached it takes just a few hours to actually wash and sort the pickles.
Now Round Two begins. Whilst the pickles to be are happily floating in an ice bath in segregated coolers, for one pickler’s pickles can never come in contact with the other pickler’s pickles, the picklers must embark on the crusade for the ultimate ingredients for the actual pickling of the pickles.
The traditionalist, whose ingredients must be exactly the same as last year and all previous years, seeks his quarry. The experimenter, constantly seeking to improve and vary his pickles, also pursues his game. The process usually begins early on a Saturday morning. They scour the country side or at least Winona for the perfect, prime ingredients.
They tramp back to the pickletorium late in the day, weary from a long day of foraging, finagling and shopping. This is an especially tiring day for out intrepid picklers as the pickling process is thirsty work and there are many a watering hole encountered on their pilgrimage. Eventually they arrive at pickle central and begin the ritual of demeaning, ridiculing and trashing the quality, quantity, variety and brands of the others pickling supplies.
Each has acquired the pinnacle of pickling products while the other has bought garbage. They challenge each others judgment, sense and sanity, but never sobriety, till the wee hours and fall back to their cots physically, mentally and emotionally spent and have fevered dream of making the very finest batch of pickles the world has ever seen.
The next morning they arise at the first glimmerings of day fanatically intent on their quest. Although, perhaps still a tiny bit bleary from the previous day of grueling procurement and thirst quenching, they are undaunted.
Each pickle-master armed with a cooler of jewels of pickling perfection on ice, the most choice pickling ingredients, and the very finest collection of vintage mason jars imaginable, eyes the other warily. Round Three is about to begin.
This is where one of the biggest advantages or disadvantages may be won or lost; who goes first. This struggle may go on to the next day as each concocts endless reasons and excuses to go first and the other must wait. Eventually one will have gained the advantage of the first start and may be going by late afternoon. But as with all great projects in the history of man the starter is faced with stiff opposition. The pickler that must wait has nothing to do but ridicule, distract and dissect every move in the procedure of the starter and makes it a wearying, rigorous ordeal.
Alone in the world, with opposition on all sides our pickle-wrangler must strive to attain the pinnacle of pickling perfection, to make reality the very ideal of pickledom. Any falter in method is immediately pounced upon by the idle pickler. No quarter is asked or given. This war of attrition soon begins to take its toll and our starter begins to falter. Has he mistakenly doubled up on the salt in one or more jars, has he forgotten the alum? Is the vinegar content right? Soon, as fatigue sets in, our pickle-meister is riddled with self-doubt and longs for there to be an end.
This is where the vilest assaults on the pickler’s technique are suffered. But if our pickler-adept has the stamina he will finish and be in a position of power. His pickles are under his belt and the only work left to do is to grind the pickler who is just getting started. After the second pickler crawls to a battered finish there is a period of thirty days of banter and slurs against the other’s product while the pickles pickle.
Finally the big day arrives for the opening of the first jar of the finest pickles ever made or swill, depending on whose pickles they are. Amazingly both batches are excellent. This is not surprising since according to our picklers, they taught the other how to pickle, back on the farm, while they were both still in diapers.
This is the true sport of pickling, this is gonzo pickling, extreme pickling, this is full contact, no holds barred, let ‘er buck pickling I could go into some of the specifics, like the year they had to have nothing but well water from the graveyard to pickle, or the great onion/garlic battles and other miss-adventures in world-class pickling, but I think I’ve covered the basics of East End Pickling. I have been fortunate to have witnessed this tempering and testing of the mettle of our dauntless picklers; a seventy-two hour grueling marathon with all the hardship and heartbreak, the pain and the suffering, and the glory and triumph of the pursuit of the perfect pickle.