Recipes, Photography, Musings

Great Grandma Howlett’s Sour Mustard Pickles and Keeping Meaningful Traditions Alive

DSC_0735A couple of weeks ago, my two children and I spent the afternoon with my mother.  We engaged in one of our favorite August rituals–making sour mustard pickles.  Pickle-making, for me, is steeped in tradition, camaraderie, and memories.  I love the pungent scent of vinegar, the rich yellow of the mustard powder and the deep orange of the turmeric, the sound of multiple generations laughing together, and even the muggy heat of the kitchen in August.  My earliest pickle party memory is from when I was a small child, and I remember our tiny kitchen was filled with my great grandmother, grandmother, mother, her sister and her cousin, and a handful of  kids.  It was hot and crowded in that kitchen, but there was a lot of laughter.  My mother has much earlier memories than mine of making pickles with her grandmother when she was just a child, and it is a cherished tradition she has kept alive with us.

Throughout the years, our pickle parties have evolved to include whichever family members are available and interested.  Some parties have been quite large and lively,  including my mom and dad, my aunt and uncle, my husband and children, and varying degrees of my brothers, their wives, and their children.  My dad started getting involved in the process when his grandchildren were old enough to help, because he loved any chance to spend time with them.  This year, our pickle party was smaller and quieter.  It was the first time we had made pickles without my dad being around, since he passed away in January.  It was important to us to carry on the tradition, so my children and I spent the afternoon in my mom’s kitchen with her, making pickles and feeling the bittersweet emotions of missing my dad, yet knowing he would want us to carry on doing something we have all enjoyed together.

cucumbers in canning jarI have posted the recipe for my great grandmother’s sour mustard pickles below.  This recipe is not difficult, as pickle recipes go, and it results in some crunchy, mouth-watering pickles.  They have a very distinct flavor–as one of my mom’s cousins says, one bite tells you whether you will love them or not!  These pickles are part of every holiday meal for my whole extended family, and when anyone is homesick, they get pickles–either shipped to them, or a quart set aside for them when they come home to visit.  For a few years, we lost the official recipe, and had to rely on memory and trial and error.  Usually the pickles turned out great anyway!  Recently, my mom found the official recipe, printed in one of her many recipe books.  Now I feel like we can share this recipe, and it will be true to how my great grandma made pickles many, many years ago.  Sometimes, the past is better left behind, and sometimes, it is worth honoring.  In this case, we honor it and we are thankful to keep passing it along.

pickling cucumbersmustardpickles in processDSC_0730


  1. Marina Maier

    Wow, Jenny!! What a great, great post! I love it all: the beautiful description, the amazing pictures, the wonderful tradition, and especially your openness and emotion. Thanks for sharing.

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