Correction to This Article
This article on pickling referred to the mixed-vegetable relish piccalilli as "piccadilly."

When Life Gives You Produce, Make Pickles

A Classic Practice Makes A Sophisticated Comeback

By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; Page F01

Heather Shorter inherited more than her grandmother's passion for pickling. She also got all the equipment: a giant kettle, a case and a half of Mason jars, bands and lids, and a dog-eared copy of "Ball Blue Book of Preserving," complete with recipe notes in the margins.

Shorter remembers tasting her grandmother's jam, not her pickles, but figures that pickling must have connected her to her German roots and her Milwaukee childhood. Sure enough, among the memorabilia the family has been looking through since her death in 1998, "my mother recently found my great-grandmother's pickling recipe for piccalilli," a medley made with an array of vegetables such as cauliflower, red peppers, onions and carrots, Shorter says.

In the years since she took up pickling and jam-making, Shorter has discovered that "pickles are kind of show-offy, even more so than bread. If you make your own, for some reason, it really knocks people out."

Just this summer, the 42-year-old has decided to test whether her penchant for pickles will lead to a profitable side gig in addition to her part-time work in arts administration. After testing recipes on relatives, friends and acquaintances in the restaurant industry, she has decided to take the plunge and lease space in the kitchen of Ray's the Classics for her new business, Jam Tomorrow.

The name is a reference to Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," in which the White Queen tells Alice, "The rule is, jam tomorrow, and jam yesterday, but never jam today." The phrase "jam tomorrow" came to mean the promise of something that is never delivered, but Shorter, a graduate of the now-defunct Culinary School of Washington, is certainly hoping her business becomes more than that.

So far, she is creating samples for a couple of restaurants and pickling cocktail ingredients for several bartenders. She'd like to expand her restaurant clientele and sell four to six kinds of pickles and jams online and in specialty shops.

Shorter isn't the only one with a hankering for pickles. Just look around at bistro menus, on cheese and charcuterie boards and at condiments for fish, sausages, burgers and sandwiches of all sorts.

The renewed popularity of a practice that just a few years ago was lumped in the same genre as knitting circles and baking contests is partly due to a return to retro. "What's old is what's new," says chef Brian McBride, who always has something pickled on his menu at Blue Duck Tavern. (His current favorites are peach pickles, made with the crisper white variety.)

The eat-local movement also has something to do with it. "People in CSAs need something to do with 30 cucumbers or a box full of beets," says McBride, referring to the farm-subscription programs known as community-supported agriculture.

Chef Liam LaCivita of Clarendon's Liberty Tavern agreed. "People want local produce, and pickling things now means cooks can eat it through the fall and winter," he says. LaCivita gets exotic with his pickles on the Amish charcuterie plate, brining watermelon rind for his mostarda, a Northern Italian fruit pickle seasoned with powdered mustard.

Although pickled peaches and watermelon rinds might have been fashionable in the '50s, the origins of the craft are ancient. They're referenced in stories of Cleopatra (as a beauty aid) and Amerigo Vespucci (who before exploring was supposedly a pickle peddler).

Even Thomas Jefferson endorsed the pleasures of pickles in his notes in the collections at Monticello: "On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally's cellar." Once Ball jars went mainstream in the 1890s, pickling became more accessible.

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