Lisa Hamblen Hood: Through the Fence 8-1-11
August 1, 2011
Certain smells are powerful memory triggers. The stench of sweaty socks and Ben-Gay® transports me back to my high school locker room. The heavy scent of Aramis® cologne still brings me a wistful smile as I remember my dad some 20 years after his death. Pine mingled with cinnamon and vanilla announces the impending flurry of Christmas. Other smells are associated with summertime like chlorine and coconut scented tanning oil. During the long dark days of winter, when I’m dreaming of sunny beaches and swaying palm trees, I pull out the sun tan cream and slather it all over my arms. I shut my eyes and take a brief mental vacation.
When I was growing up, our house was always filled with tantalizing aromas from the kitchen. Mom was an old-fashioned cook. She rarely used recipes or measured ingredients, but somehow her dishes always turned out great. During the summer, my sister and I would pick bushels of peaches so Mom could make preserves. The sweet fragrance of cooking fruit lingered for days after the last seal popped on the Mason jars.
Besides canning all kinds of jellies and preserves, Mom loved to can dill pickles. Dad would chide her when she’d give a jar away because he loved those pickles so much. “Give ’em money instead!” he’d say with a wink.
The pickling process was a complicated ritual. Before we started Mom would call Mrs. Criswell, my second grade teacher, to ask permission to pluck a bag full of leaves off her grape vine. My sister and I got to do that job. One leaf would be placed at the bottom of each jar before the other ingredients were added. Our other job was to bring in an armload of fresh dill and several pods of garlic from Dad’s garden. Talk about aromatic! Both of those were so stout, our eyes would be watering by the time we got to the house. Everyone helped pick two bushels of cucumbers from the sticky vines, getting the smallest ones because Mom said they made the best pickles. They were dumped into the kitchen sink and allowed to soak overnight in a bath of alum. That leached the excess water from the cukes.
Then Mom called Blanche, a mysterious woman that we only saw at pickle canning time. She was one of my mother’s coworkers that she’d known from another, pre-Mommy life. Apparently there was no way to make a successful batch of pickles without the head “pickler.”
On canning day, Blanche would roar down our caliche driveway shortly after dawn. She had closely cropped platinum blonde hair and short stubby fingers with red, chipped-off nail polish. She always came in an old station wagon, laden with a case of cheap beer. This shocked my sister and me. The women in my family rarely drank, and when they did, they usually sipped on a glass of wine or a sweet cocktail. They’d certainly never drink beer straight out of a can, especially cheap, unrefrigerated beer. But ol’ Blanche had no such pretensions. And the notion of “five o’clock somewhere” had never occurred to her. She’d pop a top on her first one before nine and keep a steady pace until the last jar of pickles was sealed that afternoon.
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All day the pungent aroma of stale beer, dill, garlic, vinegar and pickling spices wafted from the hot kitchen where the jars were boiled and filled with all the necessary ingredients by Mom and Blanche. Those days are magical snapshots torn from the mental scrapbook of my childhood.
Since I’ve become a mother myself, I’ve canned peaches, blueberries and apricots. But for some reason, I’ve never attempted pickles. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid I’d get it wrong. Maybe it’s because I don’t have someone like Blanche to help me. Or maybe it’s because if the smell of dill got too strong in the house, I’d be so overcome with nostalgia, I’d never be able to finish the job.