Merrie Sue Holton, Published August 16 2013
Pickle Pack: Family bonds each summer over cucumber canning celebration
The Anderson family may have found the secret recipe for family bonding: dill pickles.
The eight siblings, originally from Lowry, Minn., pack family fun into hundreds of jars and just one day each summer.
This year the annual tradition began at 7 a.m. in a garage near Audubon. They packed and processed six bushels – 174 quarts and 60 pints of cucumbers. Next year they’re aiming for 11 bushels, which should make more than 300 quarts.
Jeanette Anderson has marshaled the troops of up to 45 people every year for more than two decades. No one can remember when the party actually started, who thought of it or where they got the canning recipe.
“It’s no secret,” says the 91-year-old grandma from St. Cloud, as she points to the Perfect Dill Pickles recipe on page 86 of the family cookbook. “Somebody got it from somewhere.”
Taking a break from her packing job and overall quality control, Jeanette, the pickle matriarch, lectures that it all has to do with the water. She boils the brine made from water, vinegar and canning salt ahead of time and brings it to the party in gallon jugs ready to pour. She wears her visor like a queen’s tiara. It reads, “Jeanette, I can boil water, Anderson.”
“We don’t use that awful city water,” she says, waving her finger. “It’s from my own well water.”
She also makes sure the packing is perfect, counting the pickles in each jar.
“You gotta use your thumb; have a strong thumb,” she advises her team of three who wear “Pickle Packer” visors. “Push em’ in there. It’s like a pickle puzzle.”
The pickle-palooza began at Jeanette’s St. Cloud home but outgrew the venue as spouses, grandkids and great-grandchildren came along.
For the past five years, the party has happened in rural Audubon at the home of Jeanette’s daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Greg Rosten. Barbara, a nurse, also plays bagpipes, creates stained glass art and bakes loaves of homemade bread in the outdoor and indoor ovens for the pickle party’s noon bratwurst-tasting lunch.
Barbara explains that the big packing reunion is held every other August, so 2013 is an off year. In 2014, they will select a new theme, design new T-shirts and welcome more than 45 people, kids and all, to the Rostens’ three-stall garage with an outdoor tent for cooking and sealing the jars. Five years ago the T-shirts read, “I was canned in 2008.” Another year, the design featured dancing pickles.
This year, 20 Andersons and in-laws formed the pickle line sporting T-shirts declaring “We be Dillin’. ” Even 2-year-old Harrison Page, a great-grandson from St. Cloud, helped by picking grape leaves off the vines to pack with the pickles.
“We don’t use any stinkin’ alum (a spice sometimes added for crispness),” says Barbara, smiling. “We discovered real grape leaves really do the trick for a crisp pickle. We also add dill, garlic cloves, a green chili pepper and a tablespoon of sugar before the brine.”
“The leaf adds extra tannin,” says Greg Rosten, the chief jar cooker and sealer.
Brenda Halvorson, Barbara’s twin sister from the Perham area, says her mom is really quite a pickle “dealer.”
“Mom gives jars away to selected people, not just anyone,” Brenda says. “They can bring anywhere from $10 to $20 on the church silent auction table. Some people tell us they have eaten an entire quart jar by themselves in one sitting.”
Brenda’s husband, John, works alongside Rosten, pouring brine and sealing the jars using propane burners. As an in-law, he says it took a few years to move into the prestigious position of wearing the “Steamy Steamer” visor. He and Greg are also charged with keeping an accurate log on number of jars produced.
Brenda and John agree that if you make a mistake in your area, there’s always someone there to tell you that you screwed up.”
“We’re not always good listeners,” Brenda says, smiling. “We even get grades sometimes. Mom has given an ‘F’ for packing.”
From cuke to pickle
Family members order ahead and pick up the small cucumbers from regional farmer’s markets.
Newbies and the youngest in the clan begin with the “Wishy Washy” visor and job, the simplest and yet vital role. They stand at a laundry tub and cull out non-worthy cukes and scrub down the good ones.
The cukes move from the washers to the “Nibber Nubbers,” who work fast and furiously to cut off the small ends.
Bonnie Rossi, a sister from Federal Way, Wash., works the slicer for the thin “slider” and bread-and-butter pickles made from larger cumbers. She deftly makes the thinnest slices, gambling her fingers in the process. By trade, she is a professional World Series of Poker player who recently won a prestigious tournament in Las Vegas.
No fear if she does cut herself as there are two nurses and one doctor in the house. Plus, they have a supply of “pickle designed” band aids. For Rossi, the experience brings back memories.
“All of us grew up in a small house about the size of a kitchen and dining room,” she says. “And we all had a job jar where we’d dig in and pick one. We helped with the dairy cows, and my mom canned everything – corn, fruits, beans, peaches, crab apples, veggies from the garden.”
Family memories also invoke the memory of family patriarch, Harold, who moved from dairy farming to delivering mail. In 1975, at age 56, he was killed in a car accident while on a mail route.
After packing to Jeanette’s approval, the cumbers move to the “Whiney Briner,” who adds sugar and brine to the jars, cleans and tops the jars with the lids and rings.
From there they go seven at a time to the “Steamy Steamers’ ” cookers until boiling.
Then comes brother Glenn, who breaks a sweat as he moves the heavy loads of steaming pickle jars to the back of a pickup, where they are kept warm with blankets.
“I make sure each jar lid pops and is sealed appropriately and kept safe overnight,” says Glenn, who lives in Artesia, N.M., and works in the cement industry.
All in all, Brenda says it’s not the cheapest project.
“But the pickles are so great we don’t care.”
Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to SheSays. She lives near Perham, Minn., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Andersons’ Perfect Dill Pickles
13 cups water
6½ cups vinegar
1 cup canning salt
Boil 15 minutes. Pack cumbers in jars with dill, garlic, pepper and grape leaf.
Add 1 tablespoon sugar to each quart. Pour brine over cukes and seal.
Lower jars into canner of boiling water so the tops of the jars are covered. Turn burners off and let stand until cool.
Makes about 10 quarts.