Story by Christina Ward
Photography by Joe Laedtke
I recently visited Brooklyn, the fabled land of artisanal foods, curious how the makers there compare to what we in Wisconsin are doing. I saw handcrafted ginger-wasabi marshmallows! Foie-gras flavored mayonnaise made by men whose lips have never touched Pabst Blue Ribbon! With beards coiffed into non-ironic shapes! As I gazed upon a jar of his pickled cucumbers, vivid green and shiny in their jar, one maker explained to me this was a special recipe. No one made them like he did. These pickles had mustard seed, fresh dill flowers, garlic cloves, turmeric, clove, bay leaf and other exotic spices.
As I looked at the jar I slowly realized the truth of this particular pickle. These were Milwaukee-style dills! Once upon a time in Milwaukee’s immigrant past, every busia worth her babushka had a version of this recipe. It was a small epiphany. What we do here — how we eat, and how we make our food — is being watched.
Every region on planet Earth has a variation of pickled food. As a teacher of food preservation, I research the history of recipes. I love meeting and talking with my neighbors and asking about how their families cook. The discovery of old recipes and how they’ve morphed during their journey to Milwaukee is always interesting to me.
Part of the pickling process is that long, long wait as the mixture ages in the jar. As tempting as it may be to eat them immediately after creation, you’ve got to let them be!
Sandy Raduenz, owner/farmer of Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek, was mystified by Slippery Jims. What were they? How do you make them? Her mother, now suffering from memory loss, had made them, but now couldn’t remember how. Turns out, if you’ve got German grandparents you may have eaten Slippery Jims too. (And you’ll know if your people made Slippery Jims… the smell is indescribable and unforgettable!)
Slippery Jims are a version of Senfgurkin, sweet mustard pickles made from overripe cucumbers. Senf is German for mustard, and gurkin describes all varieties of pickled cucumbers. These are a Berlin delicacy and are made by cooks throughout the Spreewald region of northeastern Germany. Closer to home, there are two distinct versions: the sweet mustardy type made by German immigrants in Wisconsin, and an even sweeter version made by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers.
Mary attended one of my classes on salsa-making last summer. Her parents were part of the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when approximately six million African-Americans moved to northern manufacturing cities from the Deep South. She brought me a jar of beautiful Chow-Chow. It was her grandmother’s recipe. Chow-Chow is a pickle relish born of necessity. During the slavery era, African-Americans ate only what they could grow and catch, supplemented by scraps from the kitchens of their owners. Traditionally, Chow-Chow is spicy and made with cabbage, okra, corn and green tomatoes, but often included whatever vegetables were on hand. I’m still trying to get Mary’s actual recipe, but I’m told it’s a family secret.
Have you enjoyed pickled mango at your favorite Indian/Pakistani restaurant? I stopped in Sasta Bazaar on Mitchell Street to pick up mustard seeds and pickling masala. The owner, Mohammed Patel, clapped his hands in glee, “Are you making pickled mangoes?” When I told him I would be, he was thrilled. “Oh, everyone should try it. It’s delicious!” Years ago I was introduced to mango pickles by the mother of a co-worker who made the tastiest Indian food ever. I was 18 and had only just tasted broccoli, let alone the exotic lunches she shared with me.
My last stop on that day was Pete’s Produce on Greenfield at 16th Street. I was speaking with Rob Heotis (son-in-law of Pete and store manager) about my upcoming pickling class. He laughed, “Whatever vegetable or fruit we get in, someone will pickle it. Our customers are every ethnicity and eat every kind of cuisine. If you want to pickle it, I’ll get it for you!”
So Milwaukee, get that chip off your shoulder. Our pickles have fancy labels and are the toast of Brooklyn. What the artisanal mayo makers haven’t figured out yet is that we come by our recipes honestly. These are the foods we grew up eating. The foods shared among neighbors and friends. It’s why the kid with the Polish last name can cook up a mean Sicilian red sauce. And why we all love pickles of every kind.
Summer is prime pickling season in Wisconsin. Pickling is one of the easiest and most versatile methods of preserving your harvest. At it most basic, pickling is the creation of a highly acidic solution for your fruits and vegetables. Foodborne pathogens cannot live in a high acid environment, so foods that are acidified have an extended lifespan.
There are a few distinct types of pickles. The vinegar-based pickle is the most familiar to most eaters; dill pickles fall into this group. A pickling solution of water, salt and vinegar is heated with spices, then poured over cucumbers. Sweet pickles are similar to savory pickles except they use sugar instead of salt in the pickling solution. Sweet vinegar pickling solutions are commonly used in pickling fruit. Have you ever tried pickled pineapple? Or the Wisconsin supper club favorite, Spiced Apple Rings?
You may be one of the lucky few in possession of the Family Crock. This piece of kitchenalia is a heavily-glazed, beige and brown clay pot whose one true purpose is to ferment vegetables. Some recipes use a vinegar-based solution recipe. Others use lacto-fermentation to create Half-Sours (a traditional Jewish pickle). Crock pickles require a firm technique and belief in the magic of ambient bacteria. It’s the bacteria that cause the fermentation and make the pickles acidic. This process is similar to the making of sauerkraut and kimchi.
The final category of pickle is that catchall of relishes and chutneys. Both are defined by having a mix of ingredients in a vinegar-based solution with spices. Relishes are traditionally wholly vegetables. But Chutneys, originating in India, are a heady mix of vegetables, fruit and spices in a vinegar solution.
Part of the pickling process is that long, long wait as the mixture ages in the jar. As tempting as it may be to eat them immediately after creation, you’ve got to let them be! The wait will vary based on what type of vegetable or fruit is pickled. The rule of thumb is that the denser the vegetable, the longer the time in the jar before eating. Whole cucumber pickles take up to three weeks to reach optimum taste. Spears take only a few days. Any type of pickle can be safely stored in your refrigerator for a number of weeks. For longer-term storage, pickles can be processed in a hot-water bath canner.
By now I hope you are remembering the best pickle you ate. The puckery sourness, the bite of spice, the cool feeling in your mouth as you crunch a cold dilly bean. Of your grandfather ‘skimming the crock’. Or the day when the pickles, after sitting in their jars for three weeks, are finally ready to eat. Many of our best memories revolve around food. This summer, start pickling and make new memories!
Christina Ward is the certified Master Food Preserver for Milwaukee County. She teaches canning classes, volunteers in the community, and sells interesting jams and jellies at a local farm market. She lives is a fifth-generation Bay Viewite whose heart still mucks along the creek of her gramma’s Osseo farm. She spends as much of her summer as possible at an old family trailer in Marinette County. She also makes crazy stuffed animals and quilts. You can find her on Facebook at Kick Out the Jams.
Joe Laedtke has been a life-long food enthusiast, starting when he was still a kid growing up in Washington Heights, watching his grandma Shirley intently as she taught him her secret recipes for onion dip, turkey gravy, and rouladen, and even through college as he delivered pizzas throughout the greater Ripon area in a 1978 AMC Pacer. These days, he proudly represents the unique combination of freelance photographer and licensed funeral director, and has garnered national attention with his website, Eating Milwaukee, including a segment on CBS This Morning. He has absolutely no willpower whatsoever around essentially any Asian cuisine.