Thursday, May 19, 2011
Family Picnics and Watermelon Rinds
Mom and her sisters were extremely close and since they all lived within 60 miles of one another, the four families were always together, especially during holidays and summer vacations. One of my aunts lived on a big farm in a large rambling house that accommodated a horde of people. And a horde was what our family was, what with so many of us cousins running here and there and everywhere. I was the oldest of the bunch and pretty much the instigator of mischief--though I did have a couple cousins who were part of my think-tank.
For some reason I've never understood, we liked to pester the pigs, chase the chickens, and go into the red barn's dim reaches to check out the bull. He was always agitated when we came around, but we weren't afraid since he was behind double steel bars, caged up like the vicious animal our cousin claimed him to be. We all believed her. And when she'd yell, "Oh no, the bull's cage is unlocked," we'd make a dash for the house as fast as our short legs could carry us. She had us in absolute fear of that critter and we had no reason to dispute her knowledge. After all, she lived on the farm.
All summer long, there were picnics and get togethers that involved setting up long tables across the home's grassy backyard which was bordered by my aunt's portentous pink peonies. I never quite understood why she loved those particular flowers so much, but she guarded them like they were prizes waiting for a medal. All I know is that we oldest cousins would pick large bouquets and present them to her with much love and tenderness--only to be scolded up one side and down the other for even touching them. It took me years to understand her madness.
The family picnics were huge events, even for us. With my aunt and uncle's kitchen garden being so large, we had an abundance of corn on the cob, green beans, peas, carrots, and watermelon. Someone usually brought chicken to the party and sometimes there was beef--but not farm beef as all my uncle's cows were milkers. I never knew him to butcher any of them. My mom usually made potato salad. It was the best in the world as far as I was concerned. It's still the best recipe I have in my files. Actually, there is no written recipe. I just watched mom make the dish so many times I memorized the ingredients. Jim always claimed it was the best potato salad he'd ever eaten and I always agreed.
As we cousins grew older, we were put to work following every Great Pig Out. Dozens of dirty dishes lined the tables, each one gunked up with uneaten food and who knew what. Then dawned the summer it became the oldest kids' job to bus the tables, throwing all the leftovers into the pigs' slop bucket (an entity unto itself). I told you, nothing ever went to waste in my mom's family. Somewhere around the age of eight, I was busy cleaning up, throwing everything into the bucket. I'd not noticed my mom going around gathering up all the watermelon rinds until she pounced on me for tossing some in the garbage. Faster than the eye can blink, she grabbed the rinds and put them into her big bowl.
"Why can't the pigs have the rinds?" I asked. "Will they make them sick?" She answered with a no, and kept going around the tables, collecting the ugly green garbage. It made no sense and since I've always been one who's curiosity often led to trouble, I couldn't just let the subject drop. So I asked again. "Why do you want the rinds?" Even now, the horror of what she told me rumbles my tummy. "Because I'm going to make pickles out of them," she said.
"Mom, you mean all those pickles you've made were from already eaten watermelon?" She told me it wasn't as bad as I imagined. She washed the rinds, cleaned them carefully, and the hot pickling juice would kill anything she'd missed. I told her I thought that was disgusting and that I'd never eat another watermelon pickle as long as I lived. She gave a chuckle and went about her business. I'm sure she told all her sisters and they had a good laugh over it because throughout the coming years, I was constantly being offered watermelon pickles at nearly every family meal I attended.
As many years as I'd watched mom put up those bite-sized pickles, scraping the rinds, etc, it had never occured to me to put two and two together, noting that the abundant rinds always showed up following a family party. And while I understood the waste not, want not way of living due to growing up during WWII with its rationing, I could never get my mind around canning garbage. Those pickles may have looked inviting sitting there in their jars, but they never tempted me again. I knew their history. That was enough for me.