Tuesday, August 16, 2011
When I was a kid the word "cucumber" was as foreign as finding a Thai food restaurant in central Wisconsin. Everything, whether the plant, the vegetable clinging to the vine, the slices on a hamburger, or the things stored in huge vats lining many roads in quasi-industrial agricultural areas; was a pickle, brined or not.
The word "pickle" persists in my vocabulary for each of these, and linguistically identifies me as a native of a place and time in history when Wisconsin's cucumber harvest was an important economic feature of our landscape here.
Migrant workers harvested cucumbers, or pickles.
Right along side of them were many white kids, whose parents put in a half acre or acre as a summer job for their kids. Typically, an efficient picker could keep up with the four-day rotation of picking down an acre of well-grown, irrigated cukes. Picking that acre, made me rich in teenage parlance, with a couple thousand dollars in my pocket after spending a few hundred in those days for all the shoes, clothing, and accessories a teenage girl would want, in addition to any original garments I would sew copying Vogue designs from pattern books.
We, my two older sisters and I, would get up about 6:00 or 6:30, and be in the field by 7:00. Our goal was to finish picking by 1:00 P. M. The mornings would sometimes be cool, sometimes in the 50s. As the course of the sun reached its zenith, it would find us stripped down to blue jeans and bikini tops. By 5:00 P.M., we would be sorting our pickles at a huge pickle sorter from #1s to #7s. The #1s would pay as much as $24 per hundred pounds; the #7s about $1.50. Sometimes I would make a couple hundred dollars for a half days work. It was probably the higher dollar per hour rate I will ever make in my life.
Those days are long past. I don't know anyone white kids that pursued the pickle as feverishly as I did. Now cucumbers are harvested once or twice by hand, typically by male migrants (versus whole families of kids 10 and up when I was a kid). Then they are picked by machines that tear up the vines and the harvest is done. The fields are staggered so the human pickers pick numerous field in succession as each comes ready to harvest.
I have three short rows of pickles in the family garden. They are just loaded with blossoms. I think they are probably a higher percentage male blossoms than the vines I picked when young (5% were typically male then as they would bear no pickles). Each four days I pick, and I pick them all in one pass, I get just a 5-gallon pail of pickles. And each four days I have to decide what I shall do with these beautiful pickles.
I have made relish. I have some brined to make sweet icicle pickles. Last Saturday, I decided on gherkins. My son wants some very crispy dill slices for burgers. I have also made a Greek cucumber and yogurt salad.
I can't imagine a garden without pickles. And although they are "really" cucumbers, having not been brined, for me I grow pickles.
This week: My favorite pickle recipes!