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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Here's one thing you might not know about the ancient Mesopotamians. They made pickles. Cleopatra, we hear she loved pickles, said they kept her pretty. Thomas Jefferson, he was a fan. And so, we understand, was Queen Elizabeth I.

Sadly, none of them ever tasted one of Grandma Minnie's original New York Full Sour Pickles.

JOANIE VICK: It tickles your tongue. There's an acid taste that absolutely hits the tip of your tongue the first time you bite into a pickle.

BLOCK: That's listener Joanie Vick of Nashua, New Hampshire, and she's been trying to replicate those sour pickles with no luck, which is why she's appealed to our Lost Recipes Project for help. That's where we're teaming listeners up with kitchen detectives to help them solve kitchen mysteries.

Joanie, welcome to the program.

VICK: Thank you.

BLOCK: And tell me a bit more about Grandma Minnie. Where was she from? What was her pickling expertise?

VICK: Grandma Minnie came from what was Russia and then was Poland and then was Poland and then was Russia. That part of the world, which is, I think, now Belarus. And she made pickles for my Uncle Phil Cotassen(ph). My uncle had a deli in Arverne, New York. At some point, she was making pickles by the barrel.

BLOCK: Wow.

VICK: And she had this refrigerator built in her garage, so there were always pickles.

BLOCK: So did her pickles taste different from other sour pickles that you've had over the years?

VICK: Most places you get are half-sour, just sour. These were, like, super sour.

BLOCK: Super sour. OK. Now, you and your cousin, Lisa, as I understand it, have an incomplete recipe that you've been trying with mixed results. You're not happy. What happened?

VICK: We have a recipe that says five pounds of cucumbers, a gallon of water and then it says one and a half kosher salt, but doesn't say one and a half cups, one and a half ounces, one and a half handfuls. My grandmother didn't cook with measurements.

BLOCK: Right, right. And a lot of people didn't, right, back then.

VICK: Yeah. Two garlic bulbs and two tablespoons of pickling spice, picking out the cinnamon and the red pepper.

BLOCK: Picking out the cinnamon and the red pepper from the spice?

VICK: Yeah. Well, we've made it and they've been super salty and we never got the timing right. I know that the longer you keep them, the sourer they get, but there's a point at which you want to stop the process and put them in the fridge.

BLOCK: OK. Joanie, we're going to try to help you out here. We have Marisa McClellan, who's an authority on pickling and canning. She's the author of the book "Food in Jars" and she's joining us now from Philadelphia.

Marisa, what do you think the problem is with Joanie trying to recreate Grandma Minnie's pickles?

MARISA MCCLELLAN: Well, it certainly doesn't help that she doesn't know how much salt Grandma Minnie put in her original pickle. Typically, you use between two and four tablespoons of salt per four cups of water, per quart. So we started with that and I actually have a batch cooking in my apartment right now.

BLOCK: Oh, you're trying to do it?

MCCLELLAN: Oh, I am. I want to figure this out for her.

BLOCK: And then what about the timing, which has been an issue, too?

MCCLELLAN: Fermentation is inexact science and you can't ever know for certain that it's going to take exactly seven days or 10 days, which is why I recommend that you kind of leave one cucumber towards the top of the jar that you take little slices off of as they ferment until it reaches the flavor that you're looking for.

BLOCK: So, Marisa, talk to Joanie a bit about what she should be doing if she's going to try to tackle Grandma Minnie's pickles and make them the way they tasted before.

MCCLELLAN: Hi, Joanie. The setup that I think works best for this in the kind of smaller batch experimentation phase is that you get a wide-mouth quart jar and a small four ounce jelly jar and you're going to use the jelly jar as your weight to keep the cucumbers submerged in the brine.

VICK: Grandma used the wooden circle in the barrel and we had used stones in the past.

MCCLELLAN: Yeah. Then it's just a matter of adding the spices to the jar and adding the garlic. And so what I did is I roughed up a pickling spice recipe for Joanie that didn't have cinnamon or clove in it, so that she didn't have to go through and pick everything out of a premade pickling spice.

BLOCK: So that goes in?

MCCLELLAN: That goes in and then you pack your cucumbers in and it's always a good idea to trim the ends of the cucumbers before you pack them into the jars so that the brine can better penetrate the cucumbers. And also, depending on how well you've washed your cucumbers, there can actually be an enzyme in the blossom end that can lead to softening and nobody wants a soft pickle. It's all about having crunchy pickles.

VICK: I didn't know that.

MCCLELLAN: Yeah. And it could be that your grandma may have put some cherry leaves or grape leaves into the barrel with her cucumbers because those leaves have tannins in them and so can encourage a crisper pickle. You top them with your brine, placing that little jelly jar on top as your weight and then tuck it away in a corner of your kitchen that's out of direct light and let it do its thing.

BLOCK: And how long do you think that's going to take?

MCCLELLAN: I find that it starts to get pickly at about a week, but like Joanie said, her Grandma Minnie's pickles were really pickly and they weren't half-sours, they weren't just sour. They were super sour, so I think maybe she should give them two weeks.

BLOCK: Well, Marisa, thanks for your advice and, Joanie, we'll check back in with you in a couple weeks to see how your pickle adventure has turned out.

VICK: Very good.

MCCLELLAN: Good luck, Joanie. Feel free to email me if you have any questions. All right?

VICK: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: And, in the meantime, anyone who wants to try this at home can visit NPR.org and get Marisa McClellan's fix to Joanie Vick's family recipe for sour pickles. And, while you're there, if you have a lost recipe you'd like help with, please write to us. Just make sure Lost Recipe is in your subject line.

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