cafe mama's kitchen

inconvenient eating

the south i never knew ('til now): watermelon rind pickles

I lived in the South for seven years (leaving Reston, Virginia out of the accounting), and still, when I think "South" I think Streetcar Named Desire, I think low-country fried oysters, I think corn pone in the dining room of the CEO in West Point, Georgia, I think Laura Ashley bedspreads and girls who go by their mama's last name, I think Spanish moss hanging from the oak trees, shrouding the highways outside of Savannah, Georgia. My image of the South is not how I lived -- in a series of dormitory rooms, apartment buildings, my diet consisting of bagel chips and low-fat cream cheese and lentils with mango -- but how I imagined living. With wide hand gestures; a taste for whiskey, neat; dresses which clung to me, sweat dripping down the small of my back, down, down.

watermelons on my table

With pimiento cheese spread. With fried okra. With watermelon rind pickles.

I've eaten my share of white bread, toasted, smeared with the South's special sauce; breaded, crispy rings of okra were my standard number one at every restaurant that served lunch with "three veg." But somehow, I'd missed watermelon rind pickles, it was too South, maybe, more Little Rock than Lexington, Vee-Aye.

watermelon rind pieces

There were several false starts, beginning a summer ago, watermelon rind saved in colanders, in bowls, spread with hap, with hazard, on the counter. Watermelon spoils quickly; August was hot. By the time I stood over my stove late one night, heating vinegar with honey, clove, cinnamon, lemon peel, August was ticking down to almost nothing. Nothing! Soon we'd be back to school; soon the heat would slouch down the street, shoulders huddled up against the drumming showers of fall.

watermelon rind pickles

Carpe pickle. I threw three recipes into the air and let the pieces fall down around my juice-dripping fingers, and, inspired by Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, chose a spice grown in the garden of the King of Babylon in 721 BC. Or so I read. The resulting preserve could have been at home in pyramid, plantation, dormitory, or shotgun shack. I like to think so, anyway. Here: Watermelon rind pickles with cardamom and honey.

one. Having saved your rinds from a small watermelon, use a paring knife to cut off most of the bright-colored flesh and dark, tough outer rind. Cut into pieces that feel like home to you: 1/2-inch wide sticks were right, here.

two. Place pieces in a bowl and cover with cold water and a spoonful of salt, about a teaspoon and a half per quart. Let sit overnight, adding ice to the water if your kitchen is hot.

three. Rinse watermelon rind with cold water, rinse again, drain.

four. In a pot on the stove, mix two cups of white wine vinegar with two cups of water and a half-cup of honey. Add two strong, spicy cinnamon sticks; a teaspoon each of cloves and allspice; a half-teaspoon of cardamom pods; and several strips of lemon zest.

five. Bring to simmer and add in the watermelon rind; let simmer for 20-30 minutes.

six. Pour into half-pint jars, leaving a half-inch headspace. Process in a 190 degree-plus water bath for fifteen minutes.

seven. When it rains, open jar, pluck out pickles with your fingers, eat slowly. Feel sweat dripping down back. Pour yourself a glass of bourbon laced deep with pie cherries. Throw back your head, and laugh.

september 05 . 2010 . comments

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