Use the dull knife! Pickling with schoolchildren

My five-year-old's school has a lovely fall tradition. On Harvest Day, early each October, the classes take part in an epic baking, crafting, and pickling marathon, with mixed-age groups rotating through apple pie baking, Irish soda bread mixing, salsa and pickle making, and fridge magnet construction. In the school lobby, a large bin has been filled up with harvest-themed donations for the less fortunate: the fruit, vegetables, baked goods, and preserves collected there will be arranged in gift baskets by small hands and distributed over Thanksgiving weekend.

This year, I volunteered to help out at the pickling station (aka the second grade classroom), a place I know well. It's 8:45 a.m.: the two brave teachers in charge have set out enough cucumbers, peppers, onions, and brine ingredients for 70 bottles of sweet mixed pickle. At the end of the school day, these bottles, along with other foods created today, will be available for sale in the school lunchroom when parents arrive to collect their kids.

"Who wants to chop vegetables?" asks the teacher as ten of the smallest hands shoot up. Their older-grade buddies, the ones with presumable knife experience, are less enthusiastic.

"Me! Me! I know how to use a knife!" shrieks a voice belonging to a five-year-old.

 I eye the small sous-chef and ask, "Have you really used a knife before?"

"Yup. All the time."

"You're sure? We don't want any pickled fingers to end up in the jars."

The chopping begins. Covered in garbage-bag sized plastic aprons, the kids are generally careful cutters, dicing the veggies methodically. I'm not seeing a lot of floor drops, either. It amazes me how neat and organized many kids this age can be.

"I'm not emotional about vegetables," says one laconic but tearful ten-year-old. "It's just the onions."

"I figured out in grade three that the school is just using us as child labour," says another. "When I'm older, I want to be a mechanical engineer and design a robot that can do this kind of work for me!" A worthwhile goal, indeed.

As for the pungent smell of vinegar permeating the classroom, opinion is divided. Some kids breathe it in with delight, while others cover their noses. One adorable kindergartner can't stop smiling as he mixes the brine, confiding in us that pickles are his favorite thing, especially pickled cauliflower.

For myself, I am thrilled that these kids are getting a taste of what their ancestors spent every autumn of their lives engaged in: preserving the good things of the earth for the long winter ahead. Self-sufficiency, thrift, and manual skills are all happy side effects of Harvest Day, and the pride in their work is obvious as the small chefs survey their day's work in the lunchroom at the end of the day.

No missing fingers in those jars either!

 

Norah's Mustard Pickles

Norah Armstrong, who was born around 1880, was a friend and relative of my great-grandparents, but her real claim to fame in her home community was these pickles. Some of the ingredients (notably curry powder) might have seemed quite exotic to Victorian-era cooks! The recipe has stood the test of time, earning a double-underlined "good!" in my grandmother's recipe book.

Because the measures for the vegetables in the recipe are somewhat inexact, I've found that doubling the measurements for the dressing is a good idea so each bottle gets enough liquid coverage. The flavour is lovely and once you've eaten all the pickles, you can use the leftover sauce in place of honey mustard. It's really nice with ham.

Ingredients:

2 quarts cukes

½ head cabbage

3 pints onions

2 heads celery

2 small red peppers

2 cauliflowers

Ice

Pickling salt

Dressing:

4 cups brown sugar

2 quarts cider vinegar

1 Tbs turmeric

1 cup white flour

1 tsp mustard seed

1 tsp celery seed

1 tsp curry powder

½ tsp mixed pickling spice

6 Tbs dry mustard

Method:

Cut vegetables into desired sized chunks and allow to sit overnight in salt water (1 cup salt to 1 gallon water ratio). The next day, prepare the dressing in a heavy-bottomed pan; it scorches really easily! Use a whisk to blend flour into the vinegar and all other ingredients. Boil gently until mixture thickens, then drain the vegetables and add to the dressing.

Add hot pickle to sterilized jars (also hot) and seal with warmed lids. A canning book would insist on giving them a boiling water bath—I think this makes them too mushy.

Makes between 20 and 24 pints.

Method:

Cut vegetables into desired sized chunks and allow to sit overnight in salt water (1 cup salt to 1 gallon water ratio). The next day, prepare the dressing in a heavy-bottomed pot, like a Maslin pan; it scorches really easily! Use a whisk to blend flour into the vinegar and all other ingredients. Boil gently until mixture thickens, then drain the vegetables and add to the dressing.

Add hot pickle to clean pint jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Makes between 20 and 24 pints.