Miss Janie’s Green Tomato Pickles
I found the yellowed half envelope in Mama’s green cloth-covered recipe book . Mama hated to cook, so I presumed the book was nothing of importance to her. When she died, I took the book home with me— it had outlived both my parents and was one of the few things that remained unchanged from childhood.
For four years it sat on the bookshelf in my house with the other cookbooks. Then, one day I took it down to study. I discovered that it was, in fact, both a treasure and a time capsule.
They say men marry women who remind them of their mothers. Perhaps they do— all men except my dad. My father’s mother, “Miss Janie” as Mama called her, was the consummate great cook. Actually, I would call her a chef. She died in the late 60’s and yet, whenever we gather, the topic of her cooking always comes up. Anyone who ever sat at her table has never forgotten it.
Some of my earliest memories are of the tastes, textures and look of the things that came from her kitchen. She was a brilliant woman and a perfectionist. And she had an appreciation for beauty and order that was apparent in every aspect of her life, from the handmade starched organdy curtains in the windows to the white gloves on her hands when she drove her blue and white ’57 Chevy.
Nothing went to waste. A pan of used dishwater became food for the houseplants, the soapiness a deterrent to insects. The exquisite scraps from every meal, every homegrown tomato peeling, every crumb of leftover homemade biscuit or cornbread, became food for the fat pig.
Everything was flawless and serene. When you climbed into bed at night, scrubbed down to new skin, the sheets were sweet with the fresh air they’d dried in, and ironed to perfect smoothness. To be in her home was to be perpetually aware of the righteousness of the simple things in life.
A graduate of East Carolina she came to Huntersville from her home in the eastern part of North Carolina by train to take her first job as a school teacher. She met my very handsome grandpa, and married him in the parlor of the Teacherage, as they called the house the teachers all lived in, because the journey back home was too daunting to marry there.
Early childhood educators make great mamas. And grandmamas. Mama Janie knew how to stimulate us, how to spark our imaginations and enchant us. Most of the memories I have of my early childhood are memories of being in her house.
Somehow, when Janie Bradford died, there were no recipes left behind. Only my Aunt Carol, also a wonderful cook, had one: Devil’s Food Cake. All her life Aunt Carol kept that recipe a secret, refusing to give it to anyone. When she finally shared it with me I knew it was a passing of the baton. I made it, with all its many complicated steps, and watched it vanish immediately.
Upon opening Mama’s green cloth cookbook I discovered that it had been a wedding present from Great Aunt Mary and it contained recipes from most all seven of my great aunts, and Mama, the dutiful 21 year old bride, had acted as scribe to Miss Janie and had recorded three recipes of hers. I immediately shared the recipes with Mama Janie’s descendants, and my brother and I launched into preparing her green tomato pickles… without doubt the weirdest pickle recipe I have ever seen.
Among its FIFTEEN ingredients are flour, and eight sour pickles. So you have to put pickles in these pickles. It took three trips to the grocery… one to the Bradford Store, to get the fresh ingredients, taken from the same soil Janie’s would have come from. Then to a second store for jar lids, salt and sour pickles, then to a third store that has wonderful fresh herbs and spices because Mama Janie specified that white mustard seeds were preferred. I was not able to find, in any of the stores, white mustard seeds so I winged it with yellow and black ones. Then, of course, I forgot a few things and had to make a night raid on the garden to bump up the red pepper count.
It took three days. One day you chop. And chop. And chop. The second you sterilize and pack jars and can. The third you finish up all the loose ends if you are me. And clean all that gear. But after hours on my feet it occurred to me that 60 years ago in this very kitchen, Janie would have been busy making these pickles. I think it would please her, as it does me, to think that we carry on, with huge love and respect for the talents and hard work of our amazing predecessors. We still treasure what they treasured. And if we are very lucky, we eat as well as they did.