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He's passing on the art of pickling

CRANSTON, R.I. -- On a recent afternoon here, David Liddle, wholesale floral sales representative by day, pickler by evening, checks the heat under a pot. Pickling liquid is bubbling away in another saucepan, the kitchen is steamy, and Liddle is hot. But he's obviously enjoying himself. Liddle has been canning and pickling since he was a child in Ohio. "It keeps me in check with the seasons," he says.

"Putting by" was once a common task of late summer, the season when mothers, grandmothers, and even fathers pulled out the big canning pot, scrubbed glass jars in soapy water, and pickled vegetables all afternoon. It was a way to save money, and later to celebrate the summer's essence when nothing was growing in the garden. Liddle has no vegetables behind his house but buys produce from farmers' markets in Cranston and neighboring Provi dence. He sets aside a weekend day or takes an evening after work to can and pickle the way his grandmother Mattie Liddle once did.

On his counter are jars of what's left from last September's harvest: cucumber relish, which he likes to serve at dinner parties; pickled beets, many of which went to a friend who loves them; and plump half-sour pickles. These he might savor himself. The process may be time-consuming, he says, but the reward "is being able to share something you've done yourself."

Liddle's grandmother was from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and when the family moved to Bath, Ohio, near Akron, she brought her Southern recipes with her. He has his grandmother's tattered Ball pickling cookbook, most of its pages loose from the binding and splattered with stains. "My grandmother lived to almost 90," he says, and she canned almost to her last days.

He helped her cut cucumbers or other vegetables, then when he was older and she became more frail, handled the hot jars. "My grandmother did it because it was her job," says Liddle. "They didn't like to watch food go to waste." In fact, he has no idea whether she liked canning.

"There's a lot to it, but it's really a very simple process." He recommends following recipes such as those in the Ball manuals so that the amount of vinegar, salt, and sugar are in the right proportions and everything about the procedure is safe.

He ladles pickling liquid over sliced cucumbers in sterilized jars. "Cleanliness is a real important thing," he adds, wiping rims of jars before putting on lids. Then he carefully lifts a jar with something called a jar lifter, which grabs the neck, and lowers the glass into simmering water. "This is the part where you have to use the most caution," Liddle says. "You don't want the cat winding through your legs." More jars go into the pot, then the lid goes on. The water must boil for 10 minutes to process high-acid vegetables. "The product inside [the jars] expands," he explains, "pushing air out, and the seal around the edge of the lid holds the vacuum so that air can't re-enter." This process means the contents can be kept at cool room temperature for up to 12 months safely without spoiling. This water-bath method can be used for tomatoes and pickled vegetables. Vinegar, used in most pickling recipes, increases the acidity.

For vegetables lower in acidity -- such as green beans, carrots, and okra -- a pressure cooker that can process contents at a higher heat must be used.

Liddle, 50, has taught a pickling and canning class for the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence for the last two years. He's found that a younger generation seems interested in these old ways. His class, which was held earlier this month, was filled to capacity -- he only takes 15 students -- and two-thirds of them were under 30. They buy locally, care about what they eat, and are interested in the environment, he says. "Buying locally and preserving yourself is going to be a way to keep fuel costs down," says Liddle, who is on the board of the community land trust, which teaches inner-city residents to grow food. There are 200 families gardening on plots around Providence; the trust also aids six incubator farm programs at its Urban Edge Farm, 50 acres of preservation land on the city's border.

When Liddle's pickles are ready, he uses the jar lifter to set them on a wooden board. "You don't want to put them on cold counters," he says. After a few minutes, there's a popping sound. "That's the sound of satisfaction," Liddle says. It signifies that the seals on the jars are tight.

By the time he's finished this season, he'll have 50 to 60 different types of pickles in his basement, many quarts of tomatoes, and 70 pounds or so of sauerkraut. "My mother's family was Eastern European," he says. His own favorites are the half-sours. They're high in vitamin C and have an irresistible crunch.

He loves the tastes of these home-preserved vegetables, but that's not really the point of all this work, he says. He's continuing a culture that his grandmother learned in her childhood. That makes a hot job on a steamy afternoon worthwhile.

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