I knew the people of our Mississippi Delta town for the jellies they made, the peaches and figs they preserved, the cucumber or green-tomato pickles they "put up." Mrs. Ernest Bullock, for instance. I still remember her for her voice, her smile, but most of all for her pear relish. And my cousin Addie Bland achieved a kind of local fame for her chowchow and mustard pickles.
In the Depression years of the 1930s, canning and preserving were inevitable ingredients of small-town Southern life. Still I suspect they were, as much as anything, part of a system by which neighbors and relatives communicated their caring. Whenever my grandmother, her visit over. would leave Addie's house, my cousin would send her on her way with a jar of something special.
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Each lady had her secret so that none of her jars of pickles or preserves tasted–or for that matter looked–exactly the same as another's. These jars, too, often bore homemade labels–sometimes naming the cook, but more commonly citing the year, and even a precise date, such as August 4, 1937. Practical in nature, these ladies realized such jars accumulated on pantry shelves and that one should never open the pear preserves from 1939 before those from 1937.
Such local largesse was not a custom restricted to our town. Every summer my grandmother and I would make our annual trek to Fairhope or Mobile and return laden with jars of watermelon-rind preserves that her sister had given us.
From our visits with cousin Maggie Smith in Wilson, Louisiana, we would bring home bread-and-butter pickles. This recipe, by the way, has never been duplicated, not even by Claussen or Vlasic. I can see her now, checking the tops of the jars with her strong hands before she presented them to my grandmother. It amazed me there that this exceptional woman, once mayor of her town–this was indeed the first woman to be elected mayor in the state, and this is in the 1920s–could also put up irresistible bread-and-butter pickles.
My own grandmother, so often the recipient of this Southern bounty, favored plums and blackberries. When blackberry season came, we were off, my father at the wheel, headed for the wild bushes that sprouted along country roads and back of the levee. Or she would break down and buy gallon buckets of berries from the vendors who came knocking at our door in late June.
By contrast, the plums that she turned into deliciously tart jelly always came from our own backyard, from the large tree that stood outside my window. I remember the intoxicating aroma of the kitchen as the plums cooked, the juice boiling up in heavy brass pans that had found their way up to Mississippi from the kitchen of a Lousiana plantation. I recall, too, the sharp smell of cloves as grandmother tested her mixture.
Not all the jellies were pear or plum or blackberry, though. One family friend specialized in quince jelly; another mayhaw. Once, on an outing to the twisting Sunflower River, we came upon a thicket of ripe scuppernongs and harvested enough for a batch of jelly that lasted through the next long winter.
There they sat on our pantry shelves–our jars of scuppernong jelly next to cousin Maggie's bread-and-butter pickles next to cousin Addie's chowchow on the shelf above aunt Mattie Steadman's sweet fig preserves and Mrs. Bullock's pear relish. And on the shelf above there stood a row of bright, empty jars, washed and rinsed and ready to be returned, for that was the unspoken rule.
I think back now and appreciate even more the fact that all of those jars, diligently filled and carefully tended, always contained more that the fruits of simple, spur-of-the-moment giving. Each one carried with it a tender face.