Adventures in Pickling

Cucumbers never grew well in the garden at my old home. But this year we broke ground for a garden in the backyard, unearthing flood plain soil that hadn't been cultivated in decades. Add my homemade compost and a sturdy trellis, and here comes an amazing crop of foot-long cucumbers!

My family loves cucumbers, but we couldn't eat -or even give away- this many. I brought a five-gallon bucket of cukes inside to make pickles. I considered buying pickling salt and spices individually to make my own brine, but thought I might be stuck with leftovers that wouldn't be used for anything else, and instead purchased a packet of dill pickling spices, good for one batch of pickles, and a jug of vinegar.

There are two basic methods for making pickles, with many variations on each. One is to ferment the pickles in salt brine for weeks, then seal in jars. You have to make sure the cukes stay under the brine, and you usually have to add vinegar later anyway. The other method is to use vinegar brine to can fresh cucumbers, which still contains a lot of salt, but it doesn't require a huge container and weeks of protecting the project from insects and curious children. After my first garden produced a few cucumbers in 1995, I made a small batch of pickles, and my favorite aunt gave me a huge crock for future pickling. The cucumbers didn't appear in later years, and we used the crock for an umbrella stand until I finally sold it. So my pickles are fresh-packed in a salt/vinegar/spice brine.

Should I pack pickles in thin slices or spears? With the recipe I used, it doesn't matter, as you pack the jars first with fresh cucumber, then fill each with brine. That gave me the opportunity to do both, so some jars were filled with spears while I made hamburger chips in others. Two types of slicing machines gave me chips that were way too thin, so I ended up cutting slices the old fashioned way.

While I was at it, a sliced up a few jars of banana peppers, since my family likes the pickled peppers that the local pizza parlor uses. I figured a nice dill brine would work for them as well.

As I began to slice up pickles and fill jars, I realized that I had been calculating the volume of my project all wrong. Experience tells me a five-gallon bucket of tomatoes will produce one soup pot of stewed tomatoes or salsa, and even less tomato sauce or juice, once the skins, seeds, and most of the water was removed from the fruit. But you don't remove anything from cucumbers, except a small slice off the blossom end (that part can be bitter). Time to wash more jars!

When I mixed up the packet of brine, it became clear that the manufacturer's idea of a "batch" of pickles was different from mine. I would need at least three more packets of spices. The grocery store only had one left, so I switched gears and bought a jar of pickling spices, equivalent to about six packets. It would not be the last jar of spices I bought. Yes, I should have invested in each spice individually, even though I would have had to hit every grocery store in town to get enough fresh dill at once. Hindsight is 20/20.

I brought two pots of brine to a boil, then filled the jars with brine. We were able to stretch the brine a bit by stuffing yet more cucumber pieces in the jars after the hot liquid softened them a little. Then I went around the top of the jars with a clean wet cloth, to make sure no stray dill seeds would interfere with the lids. The lids had been heated under a cover of boiling water, and then were placed on the jars with rings. The rings were put on just tight enough to keep the lid from falling off. The air from inside the jar must be able to vent to produce a proper seal.

The new large canner holds fourteen pints or ten quart jars. To accommodate one bucket of cucumbers, I had to use both sizes, which meant boiling many kettles of water to make sure all the jars were covered adequately. To keep jars under water during the canning process, you should have at least two inches of water over the tallest jar. The process of getting that much water to boil (we used every stove burner) took longer than any other part of the process.

Twenty minutes of constant boiling later, I removed the hot jars. The cooling jars from three canner loads took up all the counter space, which gave me the perfect excuse to order takeout for dinner. That one move probably wiped out my savings in pickles for the year.

But in this day and time, you don't can your own garden produce just to save money. The food itself is high quality from a lovingly-produced family garden, instead of a commercial farm thousands of miles away. You also have the satisfaction of knowing you were responsible for the end product. And while a jar of store-bought pickles would be too weird to give as a gift, home-canned pickles are a perfectly thoughtful gift.

Are the pickles any good? I don't know! Since they are fresh packed, the brine spices won't fully penetrate the fruit for a few weeks. The recipe recommended waiting a month before eating them. We had two jars with lids that failed to seal, so they went into the refrigerator as the first ones to be eaten. We are trying to wait the proper amount of time before we pass judgement.

I've gone through this process several times in the last few weeks. Believe me, many of these jars will be given away. We eat a lot of pickles, but there's no way we can consume this many in a year. Properly preserved pickles are supposed to last several years, but tend to taste best in the first year. And we will have another garden next summer!
Photographs by Princess Cellania.

See also: A Dozen Pumpkins, Salsa Time! and Growing Tomatoes.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”


Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.


In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.


In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span;

Mario Tama, Getty Images
Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]


More from mental floss studios