There’s something about a leisurely summer weekend that calls out for canning so I am making German Dill Pickles using Mrs. R. Wegener’s recipe. I realize that leisure and canning are an unlikely pairing to most of the women contributing recipes to the 1906 Berlin Cook Book. Canning was no longer required for survival as it was during the early settlement period but it was certainly part of economic survival for some of these women. There was also a culture of food preservation as a way to take care of family — basically be a good wife and mother by making things from scratch. This is a message women still hear today.
I have not successfully made crock pickles. Don’t blame me if yours don’t turn out as I am still learning. I grew up with neighbours making this style of dill pickle but it wasn’t part of my family tradition. I can remember walking into homes and knowing it must be pickle time as there is a very distinctive smell about the process. This is a form of fermentation. I tried making both crock pickles and sauerkraut in historic sites but they were often thrown out on my days off by staff unfamiliar with the process. They look bad before they get good. However, they can truly be dangerous. Don’t eat slimy or discoloured pickles or anything questionable! The basic “if in doubt throw it out” applies here to avoid food poisoning.
I bought small cucumbers yesterday at the market and put them to soak in cold water as recommended in the recipe. It is important to use very fresh cucumbers. Today I checked them over and discarded any that were soft or blemished. I also removed any dried blossoms from the ends. I washed out my crock and lay the cucumbers in the bottom and then added dill flowers and another layer of cucumbers and so on. I don’t have grape leaves handy but will get some tomorrow to put into the crock. I know a place with wild grapes and can collect the leaves. I’m not entirely sure why grape leaves are added but I think they help keep the pickles crisp (rather like alum).
The next step was making the weak brine. I’m still not entirely sure of the proportions for a weak brine. I’ve often seen suggestions that a brine should float an egg but that is for a strong brine. Generally the listing for a weak brine is 10 to 12 percent salt. I decided to use 1/2 cup salt to 5 cups of water. It is important to use the correct type of salt. Avoid using salt with iodine (iodized) for pickling. It is best to use salt labeled “pickling”. After the brine cooled I poured it over the cucumbers and dill and put a plate on top. The plate needs to fit inside the crock and to be weighted so that the cucumbers are always under the brine. The simplest method is to take a clean jar, fill it with water, and set it on top of the plate.
Henriette Matilda Rehberger became Mrs. R. Wegener when she married Richard Wegener. In the 1901 census they are 28 and 27 years old with two little boys. Richard is an oil agent and had emigrated from Germany in 1893. Henriette listed as Matilda in the census was born in Toronto. I don’t know what happens to this family after Matilda contributed her recipes to the cook book. The Wegeners don’t appear in the 1911 census.
There is no tasting yet with this recipe. It needs to be undisturbed for four weeks to allow the process to take place. However, I can say that the smell of salt and dill is very appealing … and I don’t eat dill pickles!
GERMAN DILL PICKLES
Put short thick cucumbers in cold water over night, then pack in an earthen crock with alternate layers of dill and grape leaves, make a brine of water and salt, using just enough salt to make a weak brine, boil, and when cold pour over the pickles. using a plate to keep them down and covered with the brine. Leave stand 4 weeks before using.