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Culture and Reclaiming Lost Recipes

By Naomi Desilets, Phase I Fellow



noun: culture; plural noun: cultures

1. the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

2. the cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc. in an artificial medium nutrient

Food is deeply ingrained in human culture. Recipes get passed down from generation to generation, steeped in the stories of the people who cooked them, shared as part of a collective identity, varying slightly from family to family.

It wasn’t until recently that I became truly interested in cooking. As a young adult, I now regret missing opportunities for gathering recipes and techniques from my relatives. Growing up, I remember climbing up on chairs to reach the counter and “help” cook, baking Thanksgiving pies and endless trays of Christmas cookies. Even then, I looked on with amazement at the women who no longer needed to look at the recipe cards or cookbooks in order to produce our family favorites.

My sister and I helping cook.

Here at AMI, I am surrounded by other young adults who share this passion for returning to eat real food and regaining the skills that our ancestors took for granted. On any given day, you will find Fellows in the hot kitchen experimenting with food: feeding sourdough starters, kneading dough, testing the temperature of homemade yogurt, brewing beer and straining ricotta cheese.

Over the last two weeks, our hands have been busy learning to preserve, ferment, and can the produce that we have been harvesting from our garden. Our shelves are starting to stock up with sauerkrauts, kimchi, pickles, peach preserves, flavored vinegar, kombucha, and mead.

Just a taste of some of the food we make on the mountain, prepared for the AMI Open House in July.

Our recent workshops on fermentation and canning brought back memories of my own family’s practices of pickling and canning, and in particular, memories of my grandmother’s piccalilli. With these feelings of nostalgia for my family’s piccalilli and my newfound confidence in food preservation, I decided to set out to try and recreate the taste of Thanksgivings past at the Desilets house.

I quickly realized I actually had no idea what piccalilli was, only that it was pickled and canned (or was it fermented?) and went on my plate at Thanksgiving. Thanks to Google and Wikipedia, I discovered that piccalilli is an English interpretation of a South Asian pickle, a relish comprised of pickled vegetables and spices. Looked easy enough. I headed to Pinterest, the go-to spot for all my culinary and crafting dreams, and quickly got sucked into the black hole of endlessly scrolling through the possibilities. It dawned on me that this project was not going to be as easy as I thought - the sheer number of variations of the recipe made my head hurt. Everyone online had different versions of the recipe - with considerable variations depending on region - and I didn’t have the faintest clue which was the one I ate growing up.

Jar of Homemade Pickles.

So, I did what I should have done in the first place - I started making phone calls. My first phone call was to my parents, hoping the recipe was written down in some old cookbook in my home kitchen in Massachusetts.

“Can you ask Nana for her piccalilli recipe? I want to include it in my blog post about fermentation.”

Unfortunately, their response was not what I was hoping for. In the chaos of moving my grandmother from my dad’s childhood home, my great-grandmother’s cookbook full of family recipes had either been donated or thrown out. Due to memory loss, my grandmother didn’t remember the recipe that she once knew my heart.

Feeling defeated and disappointed, I was about the give up, before my dad added:

“I think Nana got the recipe from the farm, I’ll drive over and ask them and call you back.”

Lo and behold, he tracked it down. Now, I have the recipe and am excited to take up the tradition of making piccalilli – and to share it with others. It is just another reason to anticipate our first tomato harvest of the year up on the mountain.

Grandma’s Piccalilli Recipe

Yield: 32 8oz. jars


· 15 lbs green tomatoes - sliced

· 3 lbs onions - sliced

· 3/4 cup unoxidized salt

· 1 TBSP Allspice

· 1 TBSP Ground Cloves

· 1 tsp cinnamon

· 1 1/2 quarts cider vinegar

· 2 lbs light brown sugar


1. In an enamel pot, begin layering cut up tomatoes, then onions, and a sprinkle of salt (repeat layers 3 times).

2. Let stand overnight then drain excess liquid.

3. Transfer mixture to a large pot and add spices, cider vinegar, and brown sugar.

4. Cook (covered) until tender.

5. Sterilize canning jars and while the piccalilli is still hot spoon into jars and can using the hot pack method.

***Note: This recipe makes a large quantity of piccalilli. This worked well for making piccalilli to last our family for the year, plus extra for gifts. The recipe can be made in smaller batches, but I purposefully included the recipe as it was given to me.***

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Jan 10, 2021

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