Piccalilli or pick a lot: The food of love

Behold. The finished Jars.

By Laura Grimes

The season’s pickle swaps are in full swing. These things sneak up and before you know it, you have hot peppers in the cupboard and elk meat in the freezer.

A few jars of piccalilli flew out the door the other night in return for promissory notes for bread-and-butter pickles and honey.

An email popped up the next day:

Your piccalilli is amazing. Can you send me the recipe? Thanks so much for sharing it.

So I typed up the recipe, mixing in all my adaptations, and then I kept typing. I was surprised to discover another story that attests to the Power of the Pickle.


I picked a piccalilli recipe last year to try for the first time for the sole reason that it used a giant amount of green tomatoes. A neighbor called desperate for help to harvest more than 20 extremely large tomato vines that were out of control and covering the south side of her house. Her father, who was visiting from out of state, had suddenly developed a serious heart condition and was hospitalized for several days, and her house was about to be painted.

She called me while she was driving to work as a city planner, smack in the middle of organizing contentious town meetings about a major highway bypass. In the sweetest, gentlest, high-pitched voice that could lull a baby to sleep, she said, “Cut down the vines, take the tomatoes, and I don’t care what you do with them. I don’t expect any back.”

Harvesting alone took me an entire day and produced enough unripe beauties, some tinier than a fingernail, they would probably have filled a trash can. Confounded by what to do with so many green tomatoes, I stumbled on this recipe. I had never heard of piccalilli.

To my surprise, it was a big hit, and now I pray my neighbor grows a ton of green tomatoes every year, knowing full well I’m messing with the weather gods and every farmer whose make-or-break living relies on a lush red crop.

This year, when my neighbor said she had a bunch of green tomatoes and would I kindly show her how to make piccalilli, Mr. Scatter and I immediately cleared our schedules (even though he had story deadlines) and stocked up on cabbage and celery seed. It took me a half-day to shop and collect supplies, making several trips to the basement to haul up jars and canning equipment.

Mutant tomatoThen our neighbor came over and immediately fell into rhythm, slicing tomato after tomato into small chunks. She liked the tiny cherry ones best.

I put on Etta James’ Love’s Been Rough On Me, one of her later albums from 1997, deeply bluesy with a little country around the edges. James sings the hard-knocks lyrics with a leathery pang, like she knows what she’s talking about, perhaps speaking from the many years she was addicted to heroin. Her voice is a far cry from the velvety wistfulness of her early days (think At Last).

Raw piccalilliAs the last guitar twang faded, I mixed together the first heaping pile of chopped vegetables that measured out to one batch.

Our neighbor said she liked the endless tomato dicing. She found it peaceful and relaxing, Zenlike. I put on Dinah Washington. As we worked we chatted. When she realized who was singing, she said Dinah Washington was pretty special to her.

About 10 years ago, she lay unconscious for several days in the hospital with encephalitis. Doctors weren’t sure whether she would pull out of it.

She remembers layers, many layers of consciousness. She remembers hearing things in a watery fog, and fighting to respond but not being able to move or talk. She remembers feeling trapped.

She and her partner had been together for about two years, unsure yet how committed they were. Her partner came to the hospital every day and stayed for hours, reading aloud and playing her favorite music, including Washington’s What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.

She remembers the day in the hospital she heard that song and finally saying something in a feeble voice. She said that was the day she woke up, as though she emerged from deep underwater. One day she was gone and the next she was there. She said that song was so true. What a difference a day makes.

We finished the Washington album and finished another batch, but never heard that song. We played Ella Fitzgerald. We finished batch No. 3 and moved onto four. We played Sarah Vaughn. And there on that cheapie compilation album slapped together several decades after the songs were originally recorded, an album that included both Motherless Child and I Feel So Smoochie, there was song No. 4, What a Difference a Day Makes. Vaughn sings it in her sure-footed yet nimble voice that’s somehow smoky and sweet at the same time.

Mr. Scatter and I remembered a special evening when we heard Vaughn at the Blue Note in New York in the late 1980s, not long before she died. During a break between sets, people at our table were murmuring something and, trying to be heard above the din, I said much too loudly, “Who’s kd lang?” just as she and her entourage walked by.

Vaughn was known to end her performances with Send in the Clowns, but when someone in the audience eagerly suggested it, she switched to something else.

That recent cloudy afternoon, we mixed together five batches of piccalilli. Each batch required four quarts of green tomatoes. That’s 20 quarts altogether, or 640 ounces, or 40 pounds. Or four albums by women whose voices burnished with steam and salt made lifetime careers singing about love. Love’s heady somersaults (It’s Magic). Love wrecked and ravaged (Love’s Been Rough on Me). Love that’s desperate and earnest (Make the Man Love Me). Love that goes from Good Morning Heartache to This Could Be the Start of Something Big. And love that’s a good slow burn, steady and solid, always there when you wake up, Time After Time.

Mr. Scatter and I had no idea our neighbor was once brought back to life by the power of a human voice. She had no idea Mr. Scatter and I occasionally write essays.

What a difference a day makes.


Piccalilli or Green Tomato Relish

  • 4 quarts chopped green tomatoes (recipe says peeled and cored, but how ridiculous is that?)
  • 2 quarts chopped cabbage (about ½ large head)
  • 2 cups chopped sweet red peppers (about 2 medium)
  • 1 cup chopped onion (about 1 medium)
  • ½ cup salt
  • 1½ cups brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seed
  • 1 tablespoon celery seed
  • 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
  • 6 cups white vinegar

Sprinkle salt over vegetables and mix thoroughly; let stand 3 to 4 hours. Drain; rinse and drain thoroughly. Combine sugar, spices, horseradish and vinegar; simmer 15 minutes. Add vegetables and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low. Otherwise, vinegar evaporates and there’s not enough liquid. Pack hot relish into hot jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Adjust two-piece caps. Process 10 minutes in a boiling-water canner. Yield: about 10 pints.

— Laura Grimes
Adapted from the Ball Blue Book
(If your company name is Ball, you shouldn’t call your cookbook Blue.)


  • The original recipe calls for sweet green peppers, but I like the way the red looks like confetti. I made it with red, orange and yellow peppers this year, and it looked beautiful when it was raw, but the lighter colors washed out from cooking, so I recommend sticking with red for visual pop.
  • The original recipe calls for 4½ cups of vinegar, and doesn’t say turn down or turn off the heat after the mixture comes to a boil, but I found that the brine runs out. I think the brine should cover the mixture in the jar. I often turn off the heat completely after it boils. Frankly, I’m still experimenting with this amount.
  • The original recipe says the yield is 7 pints, but I find it makes between 9 and 10 pints.


Read all about past fun with pickles:


Practice Safe Snacking. Always Use a Condiment!