Everyone in America has a childhood pickle memory, some great memories of the perfect pickle and some less notable. When my sister and I were kids there was a small pickle company located a couple of towns away and all the local grocery stores in the area had a 55 gallon wooden pickle barrel of their pickles with tongs and plastic bags for you to help yourself. On the side of the barrel was a sign that offered a free pickle to children under 7 years old, a brilliant marketing campaign to capture the next generation of customers. Well, they had me as a loyal customer after only one pickle!
These pickles were really a sour mustard pickle, a rather harsh sensation for a delicate young mouth. I trained myself to enjoy the intense sour flavor by eating slowly, but not waiting too long in between small bites so my mouth wouldn't burn. The company name was the Hescock Pickle Company. It was located on a bucolic bend in the Kennebec River with 3 large outside cement pools where the pickles cured. All the farmers within a 50 mile radius raised white spine pickling cucumbers for this company to help raise enough money to pay their real estate taxes. Large nets were draped over the pools to keep debris and birds away as the cucumbers transformed into pickles. At the end of the summer when the cure was done they were packed into 5 gallon buckets or wooden pickle barrels and delivered in pickle green pick up trucks to small markets.
By Spring they no longer crisp like they were in the Fall and much more intensely sour, not for the faint of heart! In Maine, on Saturday nights, baked beans with coleslaw, fresh hot loaves of bread and Hescock sour mustard pickles was the dinner of choice. Hescock sold tons of their pickles, their only product. As the Hescock family died away the buildings and curing pools suffered from years of minimal upkeep and the state inspectors finally closed them down. There was a real void for the demand they had created. No one else made pickles of any sort or in any quantity. Along came Vina Goodrich, a gifted sour mustard pickle maker. She raised all her own cucumbers and her pickle sales augmented her income after her husband died, giving her enough money to afford to stay in her childhood home. We sold all the pickles she could make at our store. In her later years when she had to stop driving she relied on her gray-haired friends to drive her down for a drop off. Over the years the boxes became fewer and no longer packed in 12's because that was too heavy for them to lift into the car.
One day I asked her for her recipe knowing that she was struggling to make a few cases, promising that I would always buy all her pickles and never share the recipe with anyone. I just didn't want this fabulous recipe to die with her as she had no relatives. Well, her face became granite-like as we paid her and that was the last time we ever saw or heard from Vina again. Now I had a real problem, no mustard pickle maker and very high demand! I had to become the "next" pickle maker!
After searching many Maine cookbooks I settled on 3 recipes that I felt were very close and started experimenting, tweaking the recipes each and every batch. They were close, but not quite like Vina's or Hescock's. One day I was lamenting with a customer about my pickle problem when she became very quiet. Pickle making isn't all that controversial a subject so I couldn't imagine what I had said to cause such silence. After a few minutes she explained that her grandfather was a Hescock, the famed pickle maker and she would love to give me the family recipe so it would live on unlike Vina. Pickles are cucumbers leap to immortality and I love making and selling them to customers that are thrilled to get them!
The Hescock Family Pickle Recipe:
2 quarts cider vinegar
1 cup dry mustard powder
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup pickling salt
7 to 10 pounds of cucumbers (depending how they are cut- sliced, spears or chunked)
Add dry ingredients to a large pot, add liquid slowly whisking in so the mustard doesn't lump. Bring to a boil and cool. Pack pickles into sterilized jars-whole, spears or chunks (I prefer spears) and pour brine over. Seal and keep in a cool place. They are ready to starting eating in a week and keep up to a year in the refrigerator.
Keep any extra brine (separate) in the frig and make more when you are getting low...or see some gorgeous pickles at the market!
Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.
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