Have you ever known something but if hard pressed, you couldn’t explain why you know it?
Recently, my youngest son and his child, my eight year old grandson, arrived at the house with about 20 ears of corn and a pumpkin, freshly picked from their garden. The two planted a garden a few months ago, possibly inspired by the fantastic garden being grown by their next door neighbor.
A few days before that, my son had walked in with a huge, heavy, watermelon, also from their garden. I had mentioned wanting to make watermelon pickles again—I hadn’t made any in over a decade. The recipe I use comes from a British cookbook and unlike most recipes for watermelon pickles, this one uses everything – except the fruit itself. The green rind, white part, and a thin layer of pink watermelon, all go into this pickle recipe. It won a blue ribbon at the Los Angeles County Fair the first time I entered it. Most recipes for watermelon pickles – that is, if you can find a recipe at all – are made with just the white part of the rind.
Well, here’s the thing: a long time ago, the white part of the rind was considerably thicker than it is in watermelons today. My speculation about this was confirmed in a cookbook by Jeanne Lesem, titled “Preserving Today”. In her recipe for pickled watermelon rind, Lesem notes, “Watermelons today have thinner rinds than those of a generation or more ago, so the old recipes that call for 1” cubes just don’t work…”
Amazingly, watermelon rind pickles can be traced back to the 1600s! Possibly the earliest published recipe for watermelon pickles written by an American cook/author appears in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookbook published in 1796. (I was curious about this and since I have a facsimile edition of Amelia Simmons’ cookbook, I had to look it up. Truthfully, her cookbook does contain a recipe for pickled melon but bears very little resemblance to today’s pickled fruit recipes).
The Dictionary of American Food and Drink notes that watermelon pickles can be traced to 1615. In 1629, Massachusetts residents first cultivated their own watermelon and nothing was wasted; the rind was pickled; the juice was drunk; the seeds were toasted to eat as a snack and the fruit itself eaten. Other cookbooks throughout the 1700s and 1800s contain watermelon pickle recipes, but Amelia Simmons’ cookbook appears to be the first reference for pickling melon to appear in an American cookbook.
Here then is my recipe for watermelon rind pickles, which won a blue ribbon at the Los Angeles County Fair in the 1990s, when I was able to take the time to enter:
WATERMELON RIND PICKLES
2 lbs watermelon peel (a little of the pink, using the green and white peel. Cut into strips 4” long so that they will fit nicely into wide mouth pint canning jars.
½ cup salt
2 quarts water
5 cups sugar
2 ½ cups apple cider vinegar
1 lemon, sliced, seeds removed
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp whole peppercorns
1 tsp allspice balls
1 tsp whole cloves
Put the prepared peel and salt and water into a glass bowl; let stand overnight.
Next day, drain and rinse the peel. Put it into a large pot; cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer until the rind is tender, about 3 minutes.
Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil (put the spices in a tea caddy or a piece of cheesecloth for easy removal). Simmer 15 minutes. Strain. Add peel; simmer until peel is translucent. Drain (but don’t discard the syrup!) Pack the peel into hot, sterilized wide mouth pint jars. Pour the hot syrup over the peel, to ¼” of the top. Seal. Process 15 minutes in a boiling water bath for pint jars. Let the pickles mellow for a month in a cool dark place. Makes 6 pints.
Ok, so that’s how you make watermelon pickles. Ours are mellowing in a cool dark place!
When Kelly and Ethan showed up on my doorstep with almost two dozen ears of corn a few days ago, I decided to blanch the ears, then cut the corn off the cob to freeze for Thanksgiving – and make use of the cobs by making corn cob jelly. I googled corn cob jelly and found quite a few recipes but chose one from http://www.cooks.com, a website that has come to my rescue many times. OK, so making corn cob jelly isn’t a walk in the park – you have to cook the de-corned cobs in boiling water, measure out three cups of the cooked liquid and then proceed to make jelly. Since then, most of the recipes I’ve come across use red corn. Darn! Kelly’s next door neighbor sent me some ears of red corn a month or so ago and I just cooked it and made a corn salsa. At any rate, I was more than satisfied with the end result. Some testers think it tastes like honey, others claimed it tastes like apple jelly. When my granddaughter asked me how I came up with this idea I replied, “It’s not new – it’s actually a very old recipe that stems, I believe, from the Ozarks…”
This morning I asked myself how I knew this. I ended up spending almost the entire day searching through food history books and all the southern and Appalachian cookbooks on my shelves. MOST American food history books don’t mention corn cob jelly at all. FEW mention watermelon pickles.
The Hoosier Cookbook, edited by Elaine Lumbra, offers one recipe for corn cob jelly, using 12 red corn cobs. The recipe is the same as the one I am providing, except for using red corn cobs instead of the regular yellow/white corn cobs.
Here is the corn cob jelly recipe that I found online – and I hasten to add that, most of the corn cob jelly recipes I was able to find are pretty much the same, whether you are using regular corn cobs or red corn cobs:
12 corn cobs (corn removed)
1 package Sure Jell
2 quarts water
3 cups sugar
Wash and break corn cobs; place into a large pot. Add 2 quarts water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and boil for 35 minutes. Remove corn cobs and strain juice through jelly bag or colander. Measure out 3 cups corn cob juice into pot; add pectin and bring to a boil. Stirring constantly, add sugar. Boil 5 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars and seal. **
(If you don’t want to go through the work of sterilizing jars and lids, you can pour some melted paraffin top of the jelly – or, just refrigerate it and have it with your toast in the morning. It doesn’t make that big of a batch).
There are dozens of cookbooks about southern cooking but precious few dedicated to Appalachian/Ozark foods. One excellent source is Mark Sohn’s Mountain Country Cooking, published in 1996. I had the good fortune to review Mr. Sohn’s book for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in 1996—but despite a good chapter on corn, even Mr.Sohn didn’t include a recipe for corn cob jelly. Who created it? No one seems to know. General consensus is that it originated in the Appalachian mountains but I consulted several dozen cookbooks including American Folklife Cookbook and the Ozark Collection without finding a thing. If anyone knows more about the history of corn cob jelly, please write!