By Mark Wieser
My dad never planted cucumbers in his garden—just radishes, onions, potatoes (lots of them), a few eggplants, and sometimes—a few rows of corn. He would spend many evening hours in the spring spading his sizable garden, which also included about a dozen apple trees. The tallest of these stood close to 20 feet—I know that from the number of times I fell off a ladder trying to reach its tallest hanging apples. (Incidentally, those green apples made the best cobbler ever!)
My dad’s garden also contained a short trellis of Black Spanish Grapes, and the entire southern perimeter fence was covered with Concord Grapes. He made wine from both. From the Concords my mother also made jelly, and both grapes produced more than we could ever use so the birds were well prepared for winter. By mid-summer he was through watering his plants, and like so many American gardens weeds reclaimed their former turf until the following spring.
My mother hated gardening and especially yard work. Like many in town, ours was a swept one, or at least a part of it was. The rest was overrun with weeds. With only a push lawnmower it was useless to even try to mow. Besides, she had enough work rearing five children and stocking our cellar with canned peaches, pears, and preserves, and on occasion she was given or bought some fresh cucumbers. From these she made pickles—dill, of course, but also our favorite—Bread & Butter Pickles.
As a rule, I hate cucumbers and everyone in the house knows it, but I love Bread & Butter Pickles. I looked into the background of this dreaded vegetable and guess what? It’s really a fruit! Cucumbers belong to the Cucurbitaceae family that includes squash, pumpkins, zucchini, watermelons, etc. This family ranks among the highest of plant families on earth and for the number and percentages of its species used as human food.
Cucumbers originated from South Asia (India) and have been cultivated for nearly 3,000 years and were probably introduced to Europeans by the Romans. Records of cultivation are noted by the French in the 9th century, by the English by the 14th century where, remarkably, they also were once forgotten for a while—then reintroduced. They were brought to Haiti by Christopher Columbus in 1494—obviously then on to Mexico and South and North America. Meanwhile, the French also brought them to Montreal.
The tribes of the Great Plains had learned from the Spanish in Mexico how to grow them and consequently cucumbers seeds were traded by Indians everywhere. Even the furthermost eastern Iroquois living in New York were already growing them when the first Englishmen ventured west. Confirming whether cucumbers were introduced to Meusebach by local Indians remains somewhat of a challenge to anyone who may care to know. But obviously, many of our local settlers had grown them and had long canned them in their native Germany.
So how does one go about changing those yucky cucumbers into delicious pickles? Pickling cucumbers are typically shorter than those for slicing. One should select only those from 2 to 4 inches in length because unlike everything else in Texas, bigger cucumbers do not make better pickles! Moreover, pickling cucumbers have flesh and skins that tend to be thicker and crispier—a trait that is desired in a pickle. Without these qualities the result of your home canning will be very disappointing. According to my research, the best type of cucumber to use is the Boston Pickling Cucumber—absolutely tops! It was originally released in 1880 by Wood and Sons of Richmond, Virginia, which makes it remarkable for having been named after Boston, Massachusetts. Another pickling cucumber is the National Pickling Cucumber—no, not kidding, this is its name! It was developed by, coincidentally, the National Pickle Packers Association. (Try saying that five times as quickly as you can.) The third best is the Bush Pickle. This one has nothing to do with any Texas oil speculators, and I was unable to learn where it originated. Nevertheless, the next time you visit your local friendly grocer, see if the cucumbers are even identified by variety. Should you wish to make this recipe you will probably have to plan on growing them yourself. And, do buy one of the three named above.
Believe it or not, Bread & Butter pickles do not have a long history. The recipe we know today dates only to the 1920s—alright, a century now at that! It appears that Omar and Cora Fanning, cucumber growers in Illinois, actually trademarked their Bread and Butter Pickles™. Theirs were marinated in a solution of vinegar, sugar, and spices. They marketed their canned pickles as such, and that name spread their popularity. When larger concerns expressed an interest in their product Omar quickly obtained a trademark for their Bread and Butter Pickles. Smart man!
So why did the Fannings decide to name them that? The reason rumored was that the Fannings were often left with lots of small unsellable cucumbers. (Perhaps being somewhat like Germans, they couldn’t see throwing them all away.) And they might very well have traded some to their local grocery for food and other things they needed—hence naming them their “bread and butter.” The expression itself is an idiom meaning one earns enough money to live. Whatever the reason, it has led experts to a century of debate. Enjoy!
25 medium to small cucumbers
12 small or 6 large onions
½ cup pickling salt (no exception)
2 cups white 90 grain vinegar (no exception)
1 cup water
2 ½ cups sugar
1 tbsp mustard seed
1 tbsp celery salt
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ginger
Slice cucumbers and onions and mix with the salt.
Cover and set aside from 1 to 2 hours—do not drain.
Add vinegar, water, sugar, mustard seed and celery salt, turmeric and ginger.
Boil mixture for 10 minutes.
Bottle and seal immediately.