Have you ever seen Greater Tuna? The show where the two guys dress up as all of the fictional characters from a small Texas town? There’s Vera Camp, town snob and VP of the Smut-Snatchers of the New Order, Didi Snavely – Owner of DiDi’s Used Weapons (slogan: “If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal”) and Bertha Bumiller, the name should speak for itself. I became convinced from the first time I saw this hilarious and “fictional” production that I had gotten screwed. Somebody owed me money because they, no doubt, pulled these characters right out of my family. There are many examples I can site and you will, no doubt, eventually hear about many of them. Today I’m going to tell you about Aunt Bessie and her famous pickles.
Aunt Bessie was actually my great aunt – my grandfather’s sister. She, and a small group of her “kinfolk” lived in Santa Anna, Texas – a north central town highlighted by two small mountains once known as “Santa Anna’s Peaks.” Aunt Bessie was about 400 pounds of muumuu wearing, tobacco chewing, crazy haired, toothless goodness. Afflicted with Elephantitis and Phlebitis in each of her legs, she didn’t move much. Most of my memories involve her sitting on an old, broken-down front porch in a rusted metal lawn chair using an old Folgers can as a spittoon and trying to keep the tobacco juice out of her well-developed mustache. She didn’t always do a good job. A trip to Santa Anna to see “the cousins” always ended with an event at Aunt Bessie’s place. Washer tossing, seed spitting, and horseshoe tossing were the main events. There was a certain charm that wouldn’t have been complete without foul-mouthed Aunt Bessie barking orders to everyone and, at times, cackling loudly at her own ability to shock and awe the occasional new comer to the party. As a young girl, I was understandably intimidated by the mass of flesh that was Aunt Bessie. There were however, two things that made these trips worthwhile: Watermelon and Pickles.
Like many people in that part of the state, Aunt Bessie and her descendants had land. On this land they basically grew three things – watermelons, cucumbers and hogs. Every get-together that I attended in Santa Anna featured watermelon as a highlight. But if we were lucky enough to be there in the early fall, it was an experience like no other. Early in the morning someone would drive out into the fields and load a truck up with dark round beautiful melons. The melons were then iced down all day at Aunt Bessie’s place. Later that evening, armed with something that greatly resembled a Bowie knife, Aunt Bessie’s son would slice each watermelon into quarters. The ones that were the best would be kept – the others would be discarded. There was no such thing as a less-than-perfect melon at Aunt Bessie’s. The iced, cold, juicy, dark red melon wedges were then placed on long tables with salt-shakers for all to enjoy. We’d roast fresh corn over an open fire then slather it with butter, salt and pepper. That was the main meal. Meat was expensive and not a necessity. No one ever left Aunt Bessie’s hungry. Following the corn, we’d dig into the watermelon. It was all-you-can-eat. There were no limits. The only rules were that you had to save your seeds as they would later be used in the seed spitting contest – which Aunt Bessie inevitably won.
There was very little mystery to Aunt Bessie. She was a simple woman with simple needs. The one secret that she held close to her heart was a very important one – the recipe for “Aunt Bessie’s Pickles.” Aunt Bessie’s Pickles were like none that I’ve ever tasted. Electric green in color and amazingly sweet, they we’re nearly addictive. They added a flavor to homemade hamburgers that was nearly indescribable and, yet, perfect. Bessie would never budge on her protection of that recipe – no matter how hard anyone tried but every trip to Santa Anna resulted in a case of pickles. 12 jars of goodness given to every family that visited. It was tradition and possibly the sole reason that Aunt Bessie was never alone.
When Aunt Bessie died, the pickles died with her. It was a sad time and we were sorry for the loss of both Bessie and her nearly-famous recipe. We would try to figure it out but could never come close. Then one day during my college years, I went to a party. We were grilling hot dogs and hamburgers and everyone had been instructed to bring an item. A jar of pickles sat on the table. Obviously homemade, I put one on my burger, smiling slightly at the memory of Aunt Bessie that always flashed through my mind at times like this. Bessie was still on my mind as I sat down and took a bite of my burger. Suddenly, my arms began to tingle. These were the pickles. They were the same! THIS was Aunt Bessie’s recipe. They were not bright green but the flavor was exact. My heart started beating faster as I sought out the person who had brought the pickles to the event. She must be a long-lost cousin. There would be so much to talk about. Had she known Aunt Bessie? Had Bessie shared her biggest secret with this girl or her family? I approached her with both awe and excitement, hoping she’d share the secret with me. As I told her my story, she listened intently. When I finished, she stared at me with a puzzled expression. “I’ve never been to Santa Anna and I don’t know anyone named Bessie,” she said with a shrug. “But the recipe is on the back of the box of pickling lime.”
Aunt Bessie’s well-guarded secret was, in reality, a corporate recipe no doubt made by thousands and thousands of other people. She had snowed us. She had taken that hoax to her grave and probably cackled loudly behind our backs each time we begged or offered bribe for the recipe. I still make the pickles occasionally and they still taste every bit as good. When I eat them, I always remember Bessie – which is probably what she intended. Salted watermelon, pickles and Aunt Bessie – the Tuna guys could only HOPE to have such a story to tell.
“Aunt Bessie’s” Pickles
- 7 pounds cucumbers, sliced
- 1 cup pickling lime
- 2 gallons water
- 8 cups distilled white vinegar (5% acidity)
- 8 cups sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 teaspoons mixed pickling spices
- 1 (1-oz.) bottle green food coloring, optional. It may not take that much but if you’re going to do it, go all out.
Soak clean cucumbers in water and lime mixture in crockery or enamel ware overnight. Do not use aluminum.
Remove cucumber slices and discard lime mixture. Rinse cucumbers thoroughly 3 times in fresh cold water. Soak for 3 hours in ice water.
Combine vinegar, sugar, salt and pickling spices in a large pot. Bring to a low boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove syrup from heat and add cucumber slices. Soak overnight.
Boil the slices in the syrup for 35 minutes. Fill sterilized jars with slices, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Cap each jar when filled.
Process jars in a hot water bath. Remove and allow to cool. Check for seal before storing. Immediately refrigerate any unsealed cans.
Makes 4-6 quarts.