The Benefits of a Berkshire Summer, Preserved in Vinegar

My friend and neighbor Jennifer Mattern maintains a consistently hilarious and often poignant parenting blog, Breed ‘Em and Weep. She turns her considerable talents this week towards talking about some of what makes our part of the world (Berkshire County, Massachusetts) so uniquely wonderful: vegetable stands that run on the honor system, pick your own berry farms, agricultural fairs, local politics and unique stories in the crime blotter (vandals squeezing toothpaste into the windows of cars, but very few drive-by shootings…)

It’s a useful reminder for me, because summer is the season I find harder to love here in the Berkshires. Not hard to love, mind you, just harder than the other three seasons, which I love unambiguously and without reservation. Summer is hot – unusually so this year, which has been downright tropical – but any temperature over 20C makes me unhappy, so I spend much of the summer longing for the next time I can put on a sweater and light a fire in the fireplace. It gets crowded here – lots of tourists who enjoy our museums, cultural festivals and greenspace away from Boston and New York. Most of the folks who visit are lovely folks, but it only takes one unhappy individual who is convinced he needs to push and shove or drive aggresively to ruin one’s whole day…

But the grand upside of summer is the annual miracle of food growing out of the ground. I still find this hard to believe. For eight months out of the year, my backyard consists mostly of snow, mud and sticks. For four months, it’s an explosion of green. I take calls on my mobile phone and wander my yard, picking raspberries in June, blackberries in August, and, if they survive the winter, blueberries from our new bushes next July…

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Caretaker Farm, as seen from the bean field

For the four green months of the year, much of our food comes from Caretaker Farm, a community supported farm in Williamstown, MA. Community Supported Agriculture is a clever solution to one of the toughest problems of small-scale farming – how can farmers earn enough money to keep their land in bad years as well as good? CSAs invite members of the community to pay annual dues and share in the harvest of the farm – in a good year, members get massive quantities of organic vegetables, and in poor years, they still get a decent harvest, but the farmers are guaranteed a minimum income which allows them to hold onto their land and plan for the future.

I’ve been a member of Caretaker since 1992 and learned years ago that the only way to deal with the bounty the farm produces in August and September was to get good at food preservation. In college, this meant making 10 gallon vats of vegetable-laden spaghetti sauce and freezing it for the winter. These days, it means pickling.

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What 20 quarts of pickles looks like. In case you were curious.

Thanks to a few bad (and now mostly forgotten) experiments and lots of reliance on Linda Ziedrich’s “The Joy of Pickling”, we now pickle cucumbers, string beans, carrots, zuchinni and brussel sprouts every year, as well as sun-drying tomatoes and packing them in oil and freezing tomato pulp. While we’re good at it and we enjoy it, it makes for some long, hot summer days packing beans into quart jars and sterilizing them in boiling water.

So this year, we took a page from Tom Saywer and have been enlisting friends and family to share the workload. A few months back, my mother mentioned that regretted never learning about pickling from her mother. So we recruited her to come help pickle the five gallons of green beans my friend Sara and I picked. Two weekends later, my friend (and brilliant science illustrator) Emily Cooper helped me harvest four gallons of tomatoes and an additional two gallons of green beans. And if all goes well, we’ll put up three or four gallons of brussel sprouts later in the year, just before the first hard frost.


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Emily readies green beans for pickling

In a world where it’s possible to get raspberries from Chile and lettuce from Southern California in the middle of winter, it seems oddly primitive to preserve one’s own food. And honestly, it’s hard to explain to you why we do it until you taste what a green bean pickled with basil tastes like on a February night. Suffice it to say that there’s something tremendously reassuring about a pair of shelves in our kitchen filled with perfect vegetables, getting better with age and waiting to bring a splash of color and flavor to a day that’s otherwise entirely grey.

I’m not the only 21st century technogeek with a sideline in food preservation. Joi Ito has an excellent guide to nukamiso pickling, a Japanese process that involves fermenting vegetables in a mush made from rice husks. It’s about as far process-wise from the technique we use (packing vegetables in salt water and vinegar, then sterilizing them by boiling), but it makes me happy to know that another geek friend is pickling vegetables on the other side of the world as I gaze fondly at the row of green and red jars in my pantry.

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13 Responses to The Benefits of a Berkshire Summer, Preserved in Vinegar

  1. Pingback: Cloudy Thinking by Ron K. Jeffries » Blog Archive » Pickled Vegetables

  2. Sandy says:

    This post makes me so homesick. While you’re right about the tourist crowding (“Look, Edna! It’s a tree!”), summer in the Berkshires is one of the most beautiful things imaginable.

    Thanks for sharing a moment of it.

  3. Kate says:

    Yeah, thanks. You caught most of what I miss most about my mountains in three pages or less! My mom just gave me a foley mill for an early christmas gift and told me folks missed the applesauce… have to see about setting up shop here. I always meant to can peach halves the way Tante used to. Maybe I can put up some tomato sauce too.

  4. Doug H says:

    So I’ll ask for a tip then (since we both get our veggies from the same place). I picked an enormous amount of cherry tomatos and oven dried them yesterday. I ended up with 2 quarts of fine specimens. Do I now pack them in oil? freeze them? or what?

    Tonight, tomato sauce!

  5. Colin says:

    Ah, a pre-caving Emily. She didn’t look so pretty crawling back out of the ground the following weekend. (Well, actually, she did look a hell of a lot better than the rest of us.) I still fondly remember making what seemed like an oil tanker worth of pesto one summer with you, all the basil for which came from Caretaker and was delicious.

    I sure hope those blueberries make it.

  6. Kwas Appiah says:

    Any chance of getting any of your special “pickables” out here in Chicago? I would have helped if the commute was feasible. I will pay for the postage. Honest! On a side note, your words recall to my mind my own sweltering week-end jaunts on the farm in Ghana. With this exception, I had to walk four miles on winding footpaths to get to the farm. No Sir, I hated every minute of it at the time. But boy how that hatred have suddenly become a lovefest when I regale Chicagoans with tales of my adventures on the farm in Ghana – you, clearing dense forests with a machete on the right hand whilst fending off tigers and assorted carniverous with the other.
    So about the pickles…..just kidding!

  7. Ethan says:

    Oven-dried cherry tomatoes, Doug? You’re a better man than I. That’s too much work for me. I’m going to oven dry the italian tomatoes this weekend, but the cherries are just too much slicing and scraping for my tastes.

    I’d suggest taking half-pint jelly jars, adding a splash of olive oil to the bottom, then packing in several layers, adding more oil, and repeating until the jar is near full. I pack, oil and seal these jars, but don’t sterilize them – so far, nothing horrible has grown on them and they’ve been good up to a year afterwards.

    Of course, if you do this and you and your family end up with botulism, I disclaim all responsibility (though I offer my sincere apologies…)

    Colin – bizarrely, the blueberries may be drowning, given how much water we’ve gotten this winter. I suspect it’s diluted the ph of the ground and that I need to pour sulfur on it again, perhaps before I mulch this winter. But still, 20 of 24 plants look healthy and I suspect the four sickly looking ones will improve if the rains ever stop…

    And yes, Emily does look cuter than you do, even coated head to toe with mud.

  8. Saheli says:

    but any temperature over 20C makes me unhappy,

    This is the guy who is famous for his love of Africa?!

    Lovely picture of Lady Emily. I’m jealous you get to keep her wares. Give her some to bring back to Cali in the fall, please! :-D

  9. Ethan says:

    Saheli – the fact that I’m miserable in temperatures over 20C just makes my love of Africa that much more unlikely… :-) Then again, Rachel is obsessed with the Antarctic and is unhappy in any temperatures under 20C…

    Kwasi – is there a Ghanaian pickling tradition that I don’t know about? I wonder whether we could start preserving garden eggs by packing them in shito, for instance?

  10. Emily says:

    Beans, beans! I do feel quite proud and parental towards them. Rupa, Ethan DID send me off with two big jars worth, but I’m afraid I can’t promise that they’ll make it all the way back to California without… um… incident. They look mighty tasty. But I’ll try my best to save one jar to share.

    Hard to tell how fetching any of us looked squeezing out of a little hole in the rock; it was pretty dark. But I do know that I, at least, kept my pants on.

  11. Doug H says:

    Too much work? What else is there to do between 11PM and 1AM on a weekday? Elizabeth put me up to it in one of her “oh, this is so easy” moments. I’ll take your advice on the oil – by the way, the flavor is quite intense on the cherries.

  12. Kwas Appiah says:

    Ethan, I think this time someone beat you to the punch. A woman here on the South side of Chicago does just that and sells them to the shops patronized by Ghanaians and other Africans. Let me know though if you come up with a more novel idea. Heck, we could make …. ok. But as least we could save ourselves many a trip to the supermarket just as you do now in winter with your assorted ‘hibernation’ pickles.

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