viola whitacre’s bread and butter pickles, c. 1952
I T WAS A DOUBLY SWEET WEEK that August a few years back: the chance to speak at the meeting of a great group of gardeners in Kent, Connecticut—and to leave the event with not just new friends, but also two pints of bread and butter pickles from Viola Whitacre’s 1952 recipe, as handed down to the gardener who arranged the event, Nancy Schaefer. In a continuing chain of hand-me-down tradition, I’ll share them here with you.
“Of all the kinds of pickles I make,” says Nancy, “they are my favorite. They are very sweet, I admit, but I think that’s why they are eaten with simply bread and butter, to balance out the sweetness.” (I had them that way for lunch Saturday. My first pickle sandwich ever was perfect, with a slice of goat cheddar and a few cherry tomatoes on the side.)
“Mom got it from our over-the-back-fence neighbor in Michigan,” Nancy recalls. “Viola Whitacre and her husband, Archie, lived in the house behind ours. Archie was the gardener; Viola kept the house and was the kind of neighbor who made us special cookies and shared jars of these wonderful bread and butter cukes, as she called them. I find making these pickles a very satisfying experience—and the finished product is so good!”
viola whitacre’s 1952 bread and butter pickles
adapted by Nancy Schaefer
THESE EXCEPTIONAL PICKLES–extra thin and very sweet–are in more of a light syrup than a brine. They can be cold-packed as refrigerator pickles, or hot-packed in a boiling-water bath, doubling their shelf life from about six months to a year or so. The recipe presumes familiarity with basic canning. Details on tinkering with the sugar is included just below the recipe, as are Nancy’s suggestions on using the syrup creatively after the pickles are devoured.
- 8 quarts small kirbies (about 32-36 pickling cucumbers—choose small ones no more than 5 inches long and 1½ inches diameter so the seeds will be very small)
- 1 dozen small white bulb onions (2 inches diameter or smaller)
- 4 large red bell peppers
- 1 cup canning salt (don’t be frightened of this amount—you wash it off before you make the pickles)
- ice cubes
- 1 quart white vinegar and 1 quart cider vinegar
- 10 cups of granulated sugar
- 3 teaspoons turmeric
- ¼ cup mustard seed
- 1 dozen whole garlic cloves
Wash the cukes and slice them very thin—no more than 1/8 inch—you will be repaid for this tedious task! (Note from Margaret: A mandoline would help, but Nancy is a true master with her knife, I can attest.)
Wash and peel the onions and slice them into rings about ¼-inch thick.
Wash and seed the peppers and slice them into ¼-inch strips.
Place the sliced cukes, onions and peppers in a large bowl, putting in a layer, salting it well, then placing six or so ice cubes on top before adding the next layer of vegetables, salt and ice. Cover and let stand for three hours.
If you are going to can your pickles, get everything ready to do that while you wait.
Whether you plan to hot or cold pack, with a half hour to go, make the pickling liquid now, too:
Mix 1 quart white vinegar and 1 quart cider vinegar in a large non-reactive pot (no aluminum or untreated cast iron; stainless or enamelware are ideal, though turmeric will stain pale-colored enamel finishes).
Add 10 cups of granulated sugar, 3 teaspoons turmeric, ¼-cup mustard seed, and 1 dozen whole cloves. Stir this together well and bring it to a boil, covered.
Rinse and drain the bowl of sliced vegetables, and repeat by refilling the bowl with fresh tepid water and drain again, three times. Drain very well, then add the mix to your pot of (furiously) boiling pickling liquid. Make sure the sliced vegetables are immersed, then cover the pot and bring it back to a gentle boil.
If you are going to can them, you want to have everything ready to start doing that now. Fill the jars and process them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Alternatively, for refrigerator pickles, simmer the pot of cukes for an extra 5 minutes, then ladle them (with the liquid) into clean jars. Once cooled, keep them in the fridge. They will keep quite well for six months or so. Canned jars are good for a year or more on the shelf—if they last that long!
The recipe can be successfully halved, but doubling it is not recommended, as it is too much to process at one time. Makes 13 or 14 pints.
I have put the recipe in a pdf that you can download and then print at home.
pickles: how sweet it is (or isn’t)
“I don’t know if you ever make three- or four-bean salads,” she says, “but some of the pickle, chopped, with a little pickling liquid and some onion is very good with beans. Sometimes I add just a little pickle liquid to my potato salad for variety, too.” I put chopped pickles in my egg salad, with a tiny bit of mayo—so I think that’s where little splashes of mine is headed, once the pickles are consumed.
If you want to tinker with the sweetness, first read what one of my favorite tinkerers, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, says about doing so; her bread and butter pickle recipe calls for ¾ cup of sugar for one quart yield of pickles (which would be about half what Viola’s style uses).
The similarly amazing Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks pickles zucchini in a brine that includes sugar, and also acknowledges that the sugar can be adjusted. Again: Note that these recipes, Heidi’s and Deb’s, are for much smaller quantities of pickles, but when you do the math the sugar adds up—though not to Viola’s decadent degree. I highly recommend indulging in the 1952 version at least once (with the warning you may do it every summer thereafter, as the very-sweet-herself Nancy Schaefer has for a lifetime).
No taste for sweet pickles of any description? Well, good thing the former railroad conductor Dan Koshansky handed down his refrigerator dill pickles to me decades ago, huh?