I've always been a big partier, but at age 40 you won't find me doing keg stands. Instead, my last several gatherings have been in the name of food preservation. Sounds strange I know, but I'm a produce hoarder who preserves every fruit or vegetable I can stuff in a jar. It's a time-consuming hobby that goes a lot faster if you have lots of hands on deck. So to satisfy both my obsession with pickling and my love for entertaining, I throw pickling parties. At the end of it all, everybody goes home with jars of tangy jewels. In other words, pickling parties are better than other parties because they produce more than just hangovers.
But it didn't always occur to me that this was the best way to do my pickling. For the past five years, I've explored quintessential Southern ingredients on my TV show A Chef's Life. To tell each story, I learn from growers, producers and cooks about traditional ways to use an ingredient. Then I take what I've learned and apply it to dishes for my restaurants in Kinston, North Carolina. I've seen that making pork cracklings is tedious. I've cut my finger in the process of learning the best way to dice a rutabaga. I've noticed that growing just about anything requires both patience and faith. But the most important nugget I've harvested is that people used to do a lot more stuff together as a means to get food on the table. Instead of buying a jar of relish at the supermarket, small groups of friends or relatives used to spend a day dicing, brining, pickling and packing once humble, now transformed, cucumbers into jars.
This is where the pickling parties came in. I wanted to emulate this experience and since I don't technically need to can tomatoes or make pickles, I decided to throw parties around it. I invite friends, family and co-workers over. I do the shopping, provide the recipes and set the stage. I ask my guests to bring drinks, snacks, aprons and jars. We start early, peeling, chopping and trimming vegetables over coffee. I throw together a salad for lunch and set out a pickle plate with cheese and charcuterie for a late-afternoon snack. We chat as we chop. And when all the jars are sealed and the kitchen tidied, each guest heads home with an arsenal of bright garnishes for bowls of beans, Bloody Marys and sandwiches. My hope, though, is that my pickling parties represent more than a shared task made easy by many hands. Fingers crossed we remember them for the ideas we exchange, the techniques we learn and friendships we nurture whether we need pickles or not. And of course, we need pickles!
Chef Vivian Howard is a James Beard Award winner for her TV show A Chef's Life. She owns two restaurants in Kinston and one in Wilmington, North Carolina.
For Vivian's pickling parties everyone works together around a big wooden table at the modern farmhouse she and her husband, Ben, built in her hometown, Deep Run, North Carolina. Since she's a chef she knows the importance of being prepared, so she provides plenty of cutting boards, knives, dish towels and prep bowls.
Produce at peak ripeness makes the best-tasting pickles. Be sure any dried herbs and spices you use to spike your brine are fresh as well. If they've been in your cupboard more than two years, put them in the compost rather than in your pickles.
Vivian Howard (center) toasts a successful afternoon of pickling. Her canning crew (from left to right) includes Ashleigh Martin, Vivian's sister Johna Casey, and mother-daughter duo Madison and Louise Mauck.
(Photos: Helen Norman)