In these parts, summer comes like a fleeting lover. After months of snow, rain and drear, we’re rewarded with twelve short weeks of bliss, sweet caresses of sunshine and lingering kisses of dew-dazed mornings. When she takes off at the beginning of September, it’s almost painful to let her go. We fantasize about her return all winter long, dreaming of barefoot walks and moonlit meals.
Not so in the South. Below the Mason-Dixon line, summer moves in like an overbearing mother-in-law who out-stays her welcome. She takes up residence with a vengeance, her humid heat infiltrating every part of your being until even sleep becomes something of a chore. Over the generations, Southerners have devised some ingenious ways to cope with a summer that lingers from April through October, from rope swings to porch rockers, and juleps to jello salads.
I became acquainted with these traditions shortly after my 10th birthday, when my father married a lady from Charleston, South Carolina. They’d dated for years, but until the actual vows were said, my sister and I hadn’t been exposed to the accoutrements of the South. Suddenly, we were extolled to say “yes, ma’m,” eat gumbo and drink Nehi.
From that year on, my sister and I spent a considerable part of each summer at the family house in North Carolina, attending summer camp and learning to appreciate (and imitate) Southerners’ unique approach to their longest season. Eventually, those sultry summer days became as much a part of me as the long New England winters. I choked down sweet tea, and pimento cheese, and pickled okra, until one day I discovered I actually liked them. I learned to put watermelons and beers in a nearby creek during picnics to keep them cold. And I mastered the art of whiling away hours on a porch swing with friends, a gin and tonic in hand. “Would ya like one?” my grandmother always asks in her distinctive Charleston drawl. “It’s refreshin’.”
Summers there were weeks of constant wonder and learning, a far cry from the northern climes where I spent the rest of my life. While I could name every seashell, flower and tree in Massachusetts, the South was full of mystery- from lightning bugs to bubblegum trees, a tree whose young branches tasted just like bubblegum when chewed. I learned to catch crawdads, and build little rings out of creek rocks where we’d have the biggest ones face off in a fight to the death. I picked raspberries, eating them straight off the bush because what on earth could ever taste better than that?
One afternoon I was invited to a watermelon eating party. I arrived, likely in dirty cut offs and a ratty t-shirt, to a score of folks ranging from age six to eighty-six, sitting around huge trays of watermelon. They ate and ate, and chewing those ruby slices down to the quick like a condemned man waiting to meet his fate. And older woman, she must have been the grandmother, the matriarch, held court, collecting rinds and extolling folks to “eat up, y’all.” When she came around to me, I tried to give her my rinds, but she wouldn’t take them. “You have to get down to the white,” she told me, pointing to the jagged edge of pink my teeth had left behind.
“She’s gonna make pickles out of ‘em,” the boy next to me explained. “You gotta eat all pink.” You might as well have told me that she was planning to pickle tire treads. It had never before occurred to me that one could eat watermelon rinds, or that one would even want to.
Over the past several years, I’ve adopted a lot from the South. I’ve picked up my grandmother’s habit of offering gin, copied her recipe for oyster pie, and mastered her caramel frosting. I make a shrimp and grits that would rival any in Charleston, and last summer I fell in love with succotash. But those watermelon rind pickles haven’t made it into my repertoire. Until now.
Last week, perhaps mesmerized by the 70 degree temperatures, I bought a whole 10-pound watermelon. Its cut up fruit filled two huge plastic containers, leaving almost no room for anything else in my fridge. Then, surveying the pile of rinds before me, the memory of that watermelon party popped into my head. Pickles?
I went to the book that many a Southern hostess turns to in a time of need— Charleston Receipts— and there, below a recipe for green tomato pickles, found Mrs. Francis C. Ford Jr.’s recipe for “Crisp Watermelon Rind Pickles.” After some brief cross referencing via the internet, I decided to give it a go. Worst case, I would be wasting some sugar and vinegar.
I did not follow Mrs. Ford’s recipe exactly. Her instructions included cooking the rinds for more than three hours, which I thought would render them far less than crisp. I also did not soak the rinds in “water to which lime has been added” as I lacked lime and had read elsewhere that salt would suffice. In addition to heeding her suggestions for seasoning with cinnamon and clove, I used ginger and a touch of all-spice.
The results were far better than I thought they’d be. I feared something just absolutely disgusting, and was pleasantly surprised that my pickles turned out not just palatable, but actually quite good. They were sweet and sour at the same time, with a hint of spice. I put them on shrimp tacos last week, in place of salsa, and they were wonderful. I’m headed to North Carolina next week and am planning to bring these along. I’m eager to see if they stand up to the test of the Southern taste bud.
Watermelon Rind Pickles
(Inspired by Charleston Receipts and a handful of internet recipes)
*Note: this recipe is best prepared a few days in advance of when you actually want to eat the pickles. Also, you’ll do it over the course of two days, peeling and chopping the rind one day and then letting it brine in salt water over night before mixing up the pickling solution. Various web sites offer advice for those wishing to can and process their pickles. I may try this later in the summer, as I’d love to put some of these up for the winter or pass them along to friends.
For the brine:
3 quarts water
3/4 cup salt
For the pickles:
1 8 lb watermelon, red fruit removed
4 cups sugar
4 cups vinegar (I did half white, half cider)
16 whole cloves
8 whole black peppercorns, crushed with the flat side of a knife
8 whole all-spice
2 cinnamon sticks
1 two-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and diced
Remove all the fruit from the watermelon, and use a vegetable peeler to remove the green skin from the rind. Cut the rind into 1-inch cubes, and set aside. In a large bowl or container, mix together salt and water. Add watermelon rind and let soak overnight.
The following day, drain the watermelon rind. Combine the sugar and water in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the spices and the rind. Simmer for an hour (less if you want crisper pickles). Remove cinnamon sticks and let cool. Transfer to jars and refrigerate. Makes 4-6 pints. Serve as a condiment with chicken or fish.