Secrets of a Tennessee Pickle Preacher
The first time I tasted a Shannon Walker pickle, I was astonished. Fat white asparagus spears sat on a stunning charcuterie platter put together by chef James Lewis at Vittoria Macelleria, then a new restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. Lewis' meats set a new standard for the city, but oh, those pickles, with their muted, juicy sweetness and elusive complexity of flavor. I had an urgent need to know who had made them, and how. It was Lewis—but from a recipe by his friend Shannon Walker, preservationist and beekeeper at the luxury resort Blackberry Farm in East Tennessee, in whose kitchen he had just spent some time. "Working with Shannon taught me some amazing principles on bringing out the best in the ingredient. And he showed me the beauty of pickling," Lewis explained.
White balsamic vinegar was the secret ingredient, it turned out. When I got the chance to talk to Walker about his flavor strategy, he noted that plain white vinegar, a common choice for pickles (which require a certain pH level), "can be harsh and really bring some heat" to the product. For delicate white asparagus, he wanted a softer, rounder effect. In his pickling kitchen, armed with a pH meter, Walker tested lots of vinegars before settling on white balsamic, which has the acid to do the job but also "has that slight bit of sweetness that really makes a great base for pickling." It's used in three of his recipes — Dilly Beans, Spiced Pickled Beets, and Refrigerator Pickled Blackberries.
Walker grew up in southern Appalachia in a family whose roots there reach back a couple hundred years. Until his sister was born when he was 10 years old, he didn't have other children nearby to play with. His closest pals in the rural agricultural "neighborhood" of his childhood were folks from his grandparents' generation. "They relied on themselves to produce a lot of their own food," he remembers, "and so it made an impact on my life very early on." Pickling, to him, preserves not only local food but also local foodways, and the latter had been under threat because of rapid growth in the South. After Knoxville, Tennessee, hosted the 1982 World's Fair, Walker says, the area saw an influx of newcomers who fell in love with the beauty of the area and stayed. "A lot changed in a short amount of time, and we lost some of our cultural identity," he says. "It's my goal now to preserve some of the southern Appalachian food culture and history," one batch at a time.
Southern food traditions are rich with pickling, canning, curing, all sorts of "putting up." Walker recalls, as a child, pulling strings from beans, slicing cucumbers—"whatever Granny had for you to do"—in preparation for pickling and canning. "You don't see that much anymore, where you have three generations of people sitting around with a common goal in mind," he says. But those are some of his fondest memories from childhood, and he'd love for this sort of thing, or some version of it, to come back. Certainly the boom in farmers' markets and gardens (urban and backyard) points in the pickling direction. Every summer brings more glorious things to put up: multicolored beets, tender okra pods, graceful pole beans, thin-skinned cucumbers.
Even if you don't have three generations on hand, you can take a haul of local produce and host a pickling party with friends, using a pitch-in and take-home model: They help with prep and canning, everyone enjoys a meal at the end, and everyone gets a few jars of goodies to take home.
Be not afraid of the canning process. It's easy to master the basic safety principles (see our Basic Guide to A Pickle Canning Party below). Then, Walker says, "just have fun with it." Begin with recipes; follow with experiments. Few are the fruits and vegetables he would not try to pickle.
Bottom line: Pickling falls somewhere between a project and play, and here's a new-timey way to get in the mood for old-timey cooking: a pickling party playlist. Walker suggests downloading the song "Pickles" by the Gourds for inspiration. Then just pile on your favorite high-spirited tunes.
Basic Guide to A Pickle Canning Party
Make sure you have the proper equipment. For a canning party, it's ideal to have two complete setups: two canners or deep stockpots, two canning racks, two jar lifters, and plenty of canning jars with new lids. These recipes are written for pint-sized glass jars with metal lids and bands (such as Ball), which will provide plenty of goodies for guests to take home and the host to keep; if you'd like to use jars with rubber canning rings (such as Weck), go to weckjars.com for slightly different instructions.
Prepare snacks or a simple meal for guests to nosh on, including a pickle you've made ahead of time. A cocktail never hurts, either. For canning, follow these steps.
1. READ: Study recipes so you know what's required.
2. STERILIZE: The party host should wash jars, bands, and lids in hot, soapy water; dry; and then heat jars and lids (not bands) in a large pot of simmering water until ready to use. Do not boil lids, as doing so may prevent them from sealing properly.
3. PREP: When guests arrive, cut food as specified, and cook mixtures as necessary.
4. SEAL AND PROCESS: Fill hot jars with hot food. Use a rubber spatula to release air bubbles from jars, and wipe rims clean. Immediately affix lids, and screw on bands just until closed (so remaining air bubbles can escape). Place jars on canning rack in boiling water in canner, making sure water covers jars by 1 to 2 inches. Return water to a rolling boil, and start timing; boil for the time specified in recipe.
5. COOL: Remove jars from canner, placing on a towel. Let jars stand at room temperature 12 to 24 hours. (Guests can take warm jars home and follow steps 6 and 7 on their own.)
6. CHECK: Press center of each lid; lids should not flex or "pop." Remove bands; gently try to lift lid with gentle pressure. If lid stays on, you have a good seal.
7. STORE: Label properly sealed jars; store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year. For any jars that did not seal, immediately reprocess in boiling water, or store in refrigerator for 2 to 4 weeks.
For more information, including high-altitude instructions, go to usda.gov and search "canning," or visit freshpreserving.com.