In a Pickle

The past couple of weeks have been full of ceasing and resting in some pretty wonderful ways. I’ve slept well, read books, and even the eye twitch that has been my constant companion and stress indicator for the past year has stopped. With time to embrace a new hobby, I took the leap and started the process of recreating my Grandmama McNeill’s Watermelon Rind Pickle recipe.

After mentioning this to a few folks, I’ve learned that many are not familiar with watermelon rind pickles. Perhaps your childhood was completely devoid of the amazing gift of watermelon rind soaked in vinegar and sugar syrup, flavored with clove and cinnamon…the pickle juice leaving a sticky trail where ever it goes…down your chin, down your arm, across the dining room table. But you ignore the mess for just a minute while you savor the sweet, tangy, and spicy gift that is a watermelon rind pickle. If you’ve missed out on this so far, I’m truly sorry. I’ll do my best to help fill the void.

All watermelon rind pickles are not created equal. It’s important to note that Grandmama McNeill’s were crisp. They had a crunch to them that, I learned after her death, was rare. There are lots of recipes out there calling for all kinds of spices, boiling methods, and sugar to vinegar ratios. Some are too sweet, some too spicy. I’ve purchased many jars at street fairs or country markets but the disappointment runs deep when you open that jar expecting the pickle of your childhood and, instead, your teeth sink into a mushy, sugar soaked, lump without the right vinegar and spice combination to bite you back. Since my grandmother’s death in 1992, I have not found another pickle that was exactly like hers. And I’ve been craving them ever since.

So, with her recipe in hand and time on my side, I set out to recreate the perfect Watermelon Rind Pickle. Like many southern grandmothers, she didn’t always write down every detail of a recipe. Most of her recipes included just enough info to jog her memory. So with Google and a family friend’s similar recipe to help fill in the gaps, I went to work peeling the watermelon, scooping out the fruit, trimming the red out of the rind. Everything was off to a good start.

THEN…I accidentally let the sugar syrup boil over making the biggest mess I’ve ever seen in my kitchen. I had to stop everything to clean my ENTIRE stove and floor to try and get rid of boiled-over sugar syrup. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to clean piping hot melted sugar off of anything, but there is not a good way to go about it. Everything is messy and sticky: your hands, your hair, your clothing, every dish towel within reach, every cabinet you have to touch to get MORE paper towels…everything! About 45 minutes later, I was clean enough to start again and counting down the hours until I was certain Ant Invasion 2018 would begin.  But wait, there’s more! The sugar syrup boiled over AGAIN. (Y’all I’m not stupid…yes the pot was too small. But this stuff goes from nothing, not even 1 bubble, to a full on boil in no time. 0 to 60 with nothing in between. One second it’s calm and not moving one bit. Blink and its a rolling, rapid boil!) At this point I wondered how fast Sears could just deliver a completely new stove to save me from cleaning this up AGAIN. Spending a second hour getting burned sugar syrup off of my glass stove top is not how this day was supposed to go. Not to mention all of the sugary drips on the floor and countertop. My entire kitchen was turning into a watermelon rind pickle. My hands were red and burned. I was apologizing to the earth for using so many paper towels. I was down to just a couple dish towels at this point and my bare feet made the worst sound with every step as they stuck to my lovely hardwood floors no matter where I stood. This was not the dreamy connection back to my past I was hoping for. I was suddenly keenly aware why Grandmama never let us “help” with this as kids. I remember being in the kitchen with her and cooking almost everything, even canning the vegetables from her garden. But this is one thing that she never showed me how to do. As I put ice on my burned knuckles, I understood that this was not for children and questioned if I was even old enough to be doing it just yet. I removed the ice pack long enough to make a note in my phone: “buy bigger pot”.

I trudged on through my first attempt with half of my syrup wasted. All of the recipes say “boil until translucent”. Um. OK. Well, these little rinds, in far too little syrup, were not getting translucent. I boiled and boiled and boiled. Finally, after nearly 2 hours (which is what watermelon rind jam recipes say to boil for) the color of the syrup turned dark. Uh-Oh. Deeming this doomed trial run over, I put this concoction in jars and sealed them. After cooling and tasting this attempt, I realized: I burned pickles. Who burns pickles?? I could feel my grandmother rolling over in her grave. Well, technically, I burned the sugar in the syrup but it sure gave these pickles which are supposed to have a crispy, sweet, vinegary, bite the taste of bitter, dark, burned, sugar. Not good.

With lessons learned and batch one in the trash, I tried this two-day process again. This time without destroying my kitchen and with relative success. But they still weren’t quite right. The syrup was too light this time. But I was determined. The McNeill Clan motto is in Gaelic is “Buaidh No Bas” which translates to Victory Or Death. I was going to get these pickles right if it took every watermelon in Durham or a new stove. With another two days, I tried again. Another 10 pound bag of sugar later and I think I did it! Watermelon Rind Pickles are here! Victory! Though I’m not done tinkering with the recipe, I’m happy to report that I made one that is as close as I’ve tasted to grandmama’s and didn’t destroy my house in doing so.

The Embracing part of Sabbath takes time. This was not something that I could do in a couple hours and call it Sabbath. Working toward Sabbath through ceasing and resting first gave me the energy to embrace this gift and certainly kept me from losing it and ordering a new stove on the spot when things went really wrong. I know without ceasing the stress and anxiety of working I would have thrown in the towel after that first hot sugar-syrup-stove-situation. No doubt that I wouldn’t have tried this again for a very long time. When we are working non-stop, we don’t have the reserves to handle failure the same way we do when we regularly cease work and worry and rest our bodies and minds with Sabbath. While I would like to think that I would tackle such a project on a weekend after the workweek, I know that it would be hard. My weekends are typically too full to devote to something that needed so much attention (and mopping!). But how do we make room in our lives to embrace something new and exciting and challenging if every day is full of the stuff we are already doing? Ceasing and resting once a week gives us time to stop our brains and bodies so that we can think about bigger, more exciting things. If we are rested, we are ready for a challenge.  When do you cease working and thinking about present worries so you can dream about what you’d like to do? When do you rest enough to make those dreams seem attainable? It may have taken me a full month to get this right while also working full time but it would have been possible with full Sabbath practice, I’m sure of that.

It’s easy to find ourselves in a pickle…too much to do, not enough days in the week to find one to call Sabbath. But maybe the goal isn’t perfection of our Sabbath practice. Maybe the goal is setting aside time to try. Maybe failure is part of the process and we only learn by trying it over and over and over, even if it leaves a bad taste in our mouth, or is messy, or just not quite right. Through practice, we can soon taste the sweet gift of Sabbath, running down our chin and all over our tables. And when it’s right, we won’t mind the mess.


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