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304 pp., 51/2 x 8, index

$19.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-5418-1

Published: Fall 2002

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Pickles and Preserves

by Marion Brown

Copyright (c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Pickles and preserves are an enduring symbol of the American table, of American hospitality in general (and of Southern hospitality in particular), and of the generous spirit that has made our hospitality legendary. Such conserves did more than preserve food for later use. They gave ordinary meals fillip and made special occasions sparkle more brightly; tucked into a gift basket, they comforted the bereaved, helped the sick to heal, or made a new neighbor feel welcome. Like so many art forms, preserving in salt, sugar, and vinegar was born out of necessity, but it was transformed by imagination into a means of self-expression and pride for housewives who had few creative outlets.

Consequently, the image of an old-fashioned Mason jar, filled with homemade pickles or preserves and sealed with a shiny new brass lid, has taken on almost mythic proportions. The image glosses over the hard work and tedium of necessity, and evokes a romantic image that most housewives of the past would no doubt find amusing. Since it is no longer necessary for us to preserve food in this way in order to eat, pickling and preserving at home has today become little more than a hobby—if not a vanishing art. For those who are rediscovering this satisfying art, this foreword provides an update on modern methods, which should be consulted as you prepare pickles and preserves from the recipes that follow. With all that in mind, it is a pleasure to introduce a new generation of cooks and readers—whether novices or seasoned pros—to Marion Brown's charming Pickles and Preserves, and to the remarkable woman who wrote it.

Marion Brown was born and raised in Petersburg, Virginia, but spent most of her adult life in Burlington, North Carolina. Aside from authoring three cookbooks, she wrote for a number of magazines and newspapers, enjoyed a local reputation as a textile designer, and hosted her own radio program. That she was accomplished at cooking, pickling, and making choice preserves is evident in her books. But Mrs. Brown is best remembered today for her timely collection of uniquely Southern recipes. Without any formal training in historical method, but with the nose of a journalist and the eye of a natural historian, she gleaned the sources available to her in the 1950s to produce Marion Brown's Southern Cook Book, a truly characteristic cross-section of Southern cooking as it had once been and as it was in her day. She also provided amazingly accurate insights into where Southern cooking was heading. In Pickles and Preserves, which was first published in 1955, she expands that view to cover the conserves of the entire nation, and beyond.

The important thing to note about this intelligent woman is that she was always looking forward. If she were alive today, she would be hard at work on a new edition of Pickles and Preserves before she would allow it back in print under any circumstances—carefully studying contemporary canning methods, sifting through the new recipes in her files and from her readers, embracing anything that would make the housewife's work easier. This forward thinking makes Pickles and Preserves a valuable tool for historians and anthropologists, helping us to understand the transformation of American food that marked the mid-twentieth century.

Mrs. Brown was on the cusp of a revolution in American business and homemaking. Raised in an era when housekeeping was the most common occupation for American women—at least for those who bought and read cookbooks—she was herself an educated career woman. However, she still took homemaking seriously and expected her readers to do the same. This is all pointed up by the original introduction of her landmark Southern cookbook and the introduction to its revised edition little more than a decade later. When the first edition of Marion Brown's Southern Cook Book appeared in 1951, the traditional division of labor was intact. Women were beginning to work outside the home, and in professions not traditionally held by women, but most of these women were working out of necessity rather than because they chose to do so. The second edition, published in 1968, addressed a different audience—women who were working away from home by choice, and in increasing numbers. This new audience was also being exposed to a widening array of convenience foods, new kitchen equipment, and cuisines from all over the world.

That is why Mrs. Brown's work is especially useful to historians: she looks both forward and backward without prejudice. Not only does she provide us with a clear, concise picture of American cooking at mid-twentieth century, she also slices a cross-section through the layers of history. Some of the old recipes in Pickles and Preserves are given verbatim, so that the reader gets the full flavor of the period. Because of this, it is sometimes possible to misunderstand not just the period recipes but also Mrs. Brown's instructions for packing and storing the product.

That is why it is important for anyone working with historical recipes to have some background, to understand the terminology and method described. Methods do change over time, and words take on a different meaning. In old English recipes, for example, the word "boil" is frequently used to describe everything from a hard boil to a poaching simmer to (less frequently) deep fat frying. One knew what nuance of the word was intended by experience and context within the recipe. In the context of this book, conserves called "marmalade" in early American books were very different from the chunky, mostly citrus whole fruit jam we know today. More to the point, imperfect understanding can lead to serious mistakes that, at best, will result in a spoiled product.

Following is a brief introduction to historical preserving methods and the methods that are recommended for preserving, canning, and storing homemade pickles and preserves today.

Canning Methodology Then and Now
Before using any of the recipes in this book, readers should understand something of the technology of home canning, both in historical context and as it exists today. Many methods and much of the equipment that were once considered safe even as late as Mrs. Brown's day (and that may have been relatively safe because home canners were then more experienced and careful—and people had built up an immunity to the bacteria and mold that old methods did not completely eradicate) are no longer considered safe or recommended today. While Mrs. Brown was very thorough in her instructions for these old-fashioned methods, some of which were still in common use at midcentury, some of them were already archaic. Most of those methods are not, strictly speaking, unsafe in and of themselves, but they are less reliable than modern practices.

Here are a few words about the old methods and equipment and why you should not use them.

Paraffin Seals
Wax or paraffin coatings are a very old way of creating an airtight seal on top of solid conserves such as jam, jelly, or meat paste. If properly done, this method is fairly reliable, and it is still used by some home canners. However, it is no longer considered safe by county extension agencies and is not recommended by most canning manuals and extension services. Aside from being tedious to do properly, paraffin seals are fragile and subject to imperfections. Of course, the reader who followed Mrs. Brown's directions exactly, creating a side pocket for the paraffin to seep into by running a silver knife around the rim and gradually adding the paraffin in layers, would most likely have had consistently safe jars of conserve. Followed to the letter, the method makes a fairly safe seal with a minimum chance of spoilage. Silver was not an arbitrary or affected choice: precious metals are a hostile environment for most bacteria and are easily sterilized by a simple dip into boiling water. Gradually layering the paraffin reduces the likelihood of trapping air between the paraffin and the conserve or of having gaps in the paraffin seal.

But carefully creating the pocket around the edges, keeping the paraffin melted and hot, and slowly layering the stuff doubles the amount of time needed to seal the conserve and leaves one with a seal that can be easily broken if the jars are not carefully stored. Also, because the conserve is allowed to cool while still exposed to the air, there is a chance that contaminants might infect the surface before the seal is put in place. It is easier and safer to use jars and lids that are designed for the purpose and to seal them using a water bath or pressure canning system.

Old-Fashioned Rubber Ring Seals
Mrs. Brown also mentions this system, which uses glass jars and independent rubber ring seals. While these jars make a charming presentation and are fine for short-term storage in the refrigerator, they are not recommended for canning. These jars were used primarily in the old method that is sometimes referred to as "open-kettle" canning: the hot jars are packed with hot conserve and sealed with a rubber ring and a clamp-type or screw-top lid. The latter are no longer manufactured, having been supplanted by modern vacuum lids with rubber seals built into them, and clamped seals are no longer considered to be reliable.

The seal was created by the gradual cooling of the jars and conserves, when escaping air formed a vacuum in the headroom of the jar. This method leaves too much margin for error, and there is no way to check the seal to insure its integrity. Moreover, because the conserve is not processed with heat, there is a possibility that contaminants could get into the conserve before the rings and lids are placed. Processing destroys such contaminants before they have a chance to multiply.

Fat Sealing
Another very old-fashioned method for creating an airtight seal over conserves is to use a thick layer of purified fat that will solidify at room temperature, such as pure lard or clarified butter. This method was used for centuries, and, before other reliable sealing methods were available, it was considered to be the most reliable way for storing cooked meat and meat pastes such as potted meat, fish paste, or deviled ham. Mrs. Brown describes the method carefully on page 255: the conserve is packed in a glazed stoneware crock and a thick layer of hot fat is poured over the top, exactly the way a paraffin seal is formed. In some cases the fat completely encased the meat—cooked sausage patties were most commonly preserved by encasing them in clarified fat, as were other cooked meats in the days before refrigeration became pretty much universal.

Purified fat is made by heating animal fat or butter until it is completely melted and hot but not burning. It is then skimmed and strained to remove all traces of water, meat, and milk solids. Solids in the fat are far more perishable than the fat itself, and will speed up spoilage. They also cause the fat to burn at lower temperatures. Purified fat can be used for cooking at higher temperatures and for the kind of seal that Mrs. Brown describes because the solids have been filtered out.

For short-term, refrigerated storage, fat seals are a reasonably safe, flavor-enhancing way to preserve cooked meat and meat pastes (for a week or two at most), but do not use them for prolonged storage and never without refrigeration. For prolonged storage, meat conserves should be frozen or canned in jars that are designed for the purpose and processed with a modern water bath or pressure canning system. When freezing meat conserves, a layer of fat on top of the conserve helps prevent freezer burn and will further help preserve the texture of canned meat pastes, but if there is any fat on the rim of a jar that is to be sealed by pressure or water bath methods, the fat will prevent the jar from sealing, so a layer of fat on food that is to be home canned is not recommended, and fat should never be used as a primary seal.

Open-Kettle Processing
This is an old process used a number of times in the recipes Mrs. Brown presents. Its name is a little misleading, because it has nothing to do with the kettle. In this process, the conserve is packed into sterilized jars and sealed without further processing. The theory was that the heat from the conserve was sufficient to create a vacuum seal in the jar. We now know that this is not always a safe assumption. Moreover, heat processing also helps destroy any contaminants that may have gotten into the conserve while transferring it to the jar.

Cold-Pack Processing
This system is mentioned frequently in Mrs. Brown's recipes and was still in general use in her day, but is no longer a recommended procedure. Cold-packing is the practice of packing the conserve into storage jars without heating either the conserve or the jar first. Usually the product is raw fruit or vegetables, whole or chunked, over which a heated preserving liquid or syrup is poured. The conserve is then sealed and processed. Cold-packed vegetables and fruits often shrink during processing, causing them to float in the preserving liquid, increasing the possibility of discoloration in the conserve. Cold-packed conserves take longer to process because the conserve must be heated thoroughly in order to destroy any contaminants that may have gotten into the jar during the packing. For those reasons, it is no longer a recommended procedure except for certain pickles that are packed in a strong vinegar brine solution.

Historical Equipment for Processing and Storing Conserves
Most of the equipment that Mrs. Brown describes is still sound for pickling and preserving in modern kitchens, although a few pieces that were once standard have been supplanted by newer technology, and some of the historical recipes describe equipment that is no longer recommended. For example, stainless steel was not as commonplace in 1955 as it is today, and many pieces of old-fashioned equipment, while picturesque, are no longer standard—stoneware crocks with wooden board lids, once widely used for brining pickles, or earthenware crocks for storing meat pastes and fruit butters are just two such examples. Many historical methods and pieces of equipment are still perfectly sound, but if you choose to try any of the historical recipes here, it is better to avoid the picturesque historical equipment described below.

Brining Equipment
Where a paraffin-coated board is called for in Mrs. Brown's text, use a heavy porcelain plate inverted over the pickle, and make sure it is weighted with a clean, acid- and salt-resistant weight—a very heavy piece of clean pottery, for example, or a thoroughly cleaned stone. The food must be kept below the surface of the brine to ferment properly, but the weight should not react with the brine and should be nonporous and clean. Unglazed or cracked stoneware is too porous to use for the process.

Cooking Equipment
Stainless steel or porcelain enamel-lined pots are still recommended for cooking high-acid foods, including not only pickles processed in vinegar but also jams, fruit butters, marmalades, and jellies. Aluminum, iron, and uncoated copper are not safe for processing any conserve that is high in acid. Use either stainless steel or well-cured wood utensils for stirring preserves, but always transfer the conserve with stainless steel spoons, forks, or ladles, and make sure that they are clean and sterile by dipping them into boiling water. This may seem like an unnecessary precaution, but a lot of work goes into home-processed conserves and it is better to be safe than sorry.

Canning and Storing Equipment
Stoneware or pottery crocks are a charming way to store fruit butter or meat paste in the short term or to present these conserves as gifts, but only if the conserve is to be stored, well-covered, in the refrigerator and used within a couple of weeks. Never store conserves—particularly high-acid ones—in metal: even high-grade stainless steel can start to react to the acid over time and become pitted. For any prolonged storage, use only glass jars with new lids that are designed for canning, and process them as described below.

Processing or Canning Pickles and Preserves Today
Canning does not mean that the food is processed in metal cans; it is the system by which conserves are vacuum sealed for prolonged storage. Two such processes are in general use for home canning—the water bath method and the pressure canning method. Pressure canners are preferred by some canning manuals for processing low-acid foods and jellies, but for most of Mrs. Brown's recipes, a water bath system is fine as long as the processing times are carefully observed, and it is the simplest and least expensive system to use.

Canning with the Water Bath System
The Equipment The most important equipment for home canning is the right jars and lids. Used commercial jelly and pickle jars are not suitable for this process. Use only jars specifically made for home canning, with new self-sealing lids and rings that are free of rust. The jars can be reused forever, and rings can be reused as long as they are not rusted; but never reuse self-sealing lids. Once the vacuum-sealing process is used, it damages the sealant compound on the lid in a way that can't be seen with the naked eye, and the rim of the lid is sometimes slightly bent when the seal is broken. Use only new lids: new canning jars are packed with lids, and replacements are available wherever canning jars are sold. For water bath processing, you will need a wide, deep enameled or stainless steel kettle fitted with a rack for holding and lifting the jars. These are sold in many hardware and kitchenware stores. Aside from the proper jars, lids, and processor, you will also need a large pair of canning tongs for handling the jars, a wide-mouthed canning funnel for filling them, stainless steel spoons and ladles, a stainless steel or enameled saucepan for sterilizing the lids, and plenty of clean cotton or linen kitchen towels.

The Process
Preparing the processor. The water bath processor should be ready to process the conserves as soon as the jars are filled. So while the conserve is heating or going through the last stages of cooking, put enough water in the canning kettle to cover the jars (while in the rack) by at least one inch, with one to two inches of clear headroom to allow for the bubbling of the boiling water. Bring the water to a roiling boil over high heat.

Sterilizing. Before canning, everything that touches the pickle or preserve must be sterile. Sterilize jars covered in boiling water for at least ten minutes or put them through a complete cycle in the dishwasher; boil the lids for one minute in a stainless pan, then turn off the heat and let them remain in the water until you are ready to use them. Cover any metal utensil that will touch the conserves in boiling water and dry it with a clean cloth. Don't touch the inside of the jars or the lids with your hands after they are sterilized.

Filling. Use a wide-mouthed funnel and stainless tongs, spoons, or forks to fill the jars; don't touch the conserve with your bare hands. The jars and the conserve should both be hot, particularly for water bath processing. If the jars are cold, they could crack during the processing. For whole pickles and fruit preserves, leave no less than one-half inch of headroom at the top of the jar, and cover them with the pickling or preserving syrup by at least one-quarter inch, leaving an overall headroom of a quarter inch at the top of the jar (pack them tightly so they won't float). For jams, marmalades, relishes, and chutneys, leave a quarter inch of headroom. Carefully wipe the rim of the jar with a clean, damp cloth to remove any juice, fat, or syrup that may have gotten onto the rim: any of these will compromise the seal. Put a new, sterile lid on each jar as it is filled and wiped, being careful not to touch the inside of the lid with your bare hands. Screw on a ring until finger-tight. Don't tighten it too much, or the air won't escape, preventing a proper seal, but rings should be screwed on tight enough to prevent water from getting into the conserve. Put the jars in the rack of the canner and process at once.

Processing. Carefully lower the rack of filled jars into the boiling water bath. Cover the kettle and bring the water back to a rolling boil as quickly as possible. For pickles and solid conserves such as chutney, process for ten minutes; for jellies, process for five minutes. Cold-packed preserves must be processed for at least twenty minutes.

Cooling and storing. When you remove the jars from the bath, they will be very hot and fragile: don't let them touch each other or any cool surface. Use the rack to remove them from the bath and, using canning tongs, place them on clean, double-folded cotton or linen towels. Never allow them to touch one another or the bare countertop. As the jars cool, the vacuum formed in the top will pull the dome of the lid inward, making the popping sound that tells you your jars are sealing properly. Let the jars cool completely before storing them. Check to make certain that they have sealed (the lid will be concave: lightly run your finger over it to make sure). Any jars that don't seal can be reprocessed. Empty the jars, clean them, and reheat the conserve; then repeat the procedure, using a new self-sealing lid. If the conserve doesn't seal after the second try, store it in the refrigerator and use it within two months.

Pressure Canning
The Equipment
Pressure canners operate exactly the way pressure cookers do, using steam pressure to process the jars and seal them. The jars stand on a rack in shallow water and are processed with pressurized steam heat. You will need all the equipment described above for water bath canning, except for the water bath kettle and rack. The jars, lids, rings, and utensils should all be cleaned and sterilized as described above.

The Process
Pressure canners may vary slightly from one manufacturer to another. Always follow the manufacturer's directions for your equipment, using the basic guidelines for sterilizing, filling, and cooling given for water bath canning above. Some manuals recommend pressure canning for low-acid foods, but water bath canning is safe for all canning, so if your storage space is limited, having both types of equipment may not be practical for you.

* * *

If you are ever in any doubt about any step in the preserving and canning process, consult your county extension service or a manual provided by one of the manufacturers of canning jars and equipment, particularly if you have never canned or if you have not done it for a very long time. Don't trust your memory. The process is not complicated or difficult, but you should be sure of what you are doing every step of the way to insure that your hard work will not go to waste.

Storing Pickles and Preserves Today
The proper storage of home-canned conserves is often overlooked or barely mentioned in some books, but it is as important as careful cooking, packing, and sealing. All unprocessed conserves must be refrigerated but should keep for up to two months if packed in a sterile jar. Cool them completely before refrigerating them. Processed conserves should be stored in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry. Home-canned goods should be good for up to two years, but most manuals direct that they be used within a year. Remember that pickling and preserving prolong the life of produce but they do not stop spoilage altogether. All food is perishable, even when canned, and conserves will eventually begin to lose their color, flavor, and quality. Check conserves occasionally to make sure that seals are intact. If any lid develops a bulge, throw the conserve out: it has definitely spoiled. In any case, if you are ever in doubt about any conserve, throw it out. There is no safe or accurate way to test a conserve for soundness: smelling it is not always reliable, and tasting it could be dangerous if not fatal.

This is not to suggest that home preserving is a questionable, dangerous, or difficult operation. Some of the recipes are time-consuming, but with an understanding of modern preserving, and with the above cautions in mind, making homemade pickles and preserves is not complicated. Often it is not even as challenging as everyday cooking. With Marion Brown as guide, even novices, busy professionals, and occasional cooks can successfully master this rewarding home art.

Damon Lee Fowler
Savannah, Georgia

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