“It’s all about your personal taste,” says Standridge. “And it’s very forgiving.”
At home in Mabelvale, Standridge’s recipe box is full of at least 20 pickle recipes from her grandmother, Clarice Slaten. Each is handwritten, the most loved showing the most wear. Look closely, and it’s easy to see where Standridge has scratched out certain ingredients, making each recipe her own. Turmeric is out. No seeds in pickled banana peppers. Always white vinegar, never apple cider.
“And you need iodine-free salt,” Standridge says. “I don’t know why, but my grandmother said ‘no iodine,’ and I’m going to go with that.”
As a girl, Standridge’s small hands got her the assignment of jar washer, but she caught on fast.That 8-year-old jar washer refined her skill over decades, becoming the mother and grandmother who keeps her family and friends in constant supply with her pickles, jams and jellies.
Every June, Standridge hits the height of her pickling for the year, putting up two dozen or so jars of each of her favorite varieties. As bins of cucumbers are replaced by bushels of pears and fall squash, she continues as long as the produce does, stacking jars in neat rows on her kitchen counter.
No matter what ends up in the jar, however, each batch starts the same way, with Standridge carefully running her finger over the rim of each jar, checking for imperfections.
“You can’t just look at your jars,” Standridge says. “You have to feel it. If it has any nicks in it, it won’t seal.”
The type of jar doesn’t matter so long as a band fits it. The band, a removable metal ring, keeps the lid in place until pressure inside the jar seals it.
When it comes to cucumber pickles, Standridge doesn’t stick to one recipe. She bounces between the ones in her stash, some taking as long as 14 days to make, others taking just three. “The more crunchy you want it, the longer it takes to make it,” Standridge says.
Standridge prefers her pickles extra crunchy, and the majority of her recipes call for other crisping methods, such as ice-water baths and pickling lime baths.
But while crisp and crunchy are essential, nothing is more important than spice. Standridge considers the spice bag to be the heart of the pickle. While the bag itself is not essential, she prefers doing things as her grandmother did, wrapping allspice, cloves, cinnamon and other spices in cheesecloth or an old handkerchief to keep them from sticking to the cucumber slices. All of the flavor, none of the mess.
Spicing is also the point that most novices slip up.
“Certain things take certain spices,” Standridge says. “Beets, for example, take only allspice and cloves, no pickling spice. With your cucumber, you want the pickling spice. And pickled peaches will not carry cinnamon.”
Because Standridge makes mostly sweet pickles—her dill pickles never seem to turn out—the process invariably leaves her ’70s-style open kitchen covered in a a thin sticky coat of sugar syrup. With so much going on in the kitchen at once—hot jars, hot pans, hot liquids—Standridge tends to make hers a one-woman operation. Her children and grandchildren have watched, but none have taken up the hobby. But Standridge is happy to lend recipes and tips to neighbors and friends who ask, including Nathanael Wills of Little Rock’s Felder Farm.
It’s taken years, but Standridge is now able to improvise and no longer refers to recipe cards each step of the way. Over time, she gravitated toward the shorter, three- and four-day pickle recipes, noticing that the taste isn’t much different. Not that her grandmother would approve.
“She went whole hog for the 14-day pickles,” Standridge says, laughing. “Three-day pickles … she’d veto those. In her mind, they can’t be good if they didn’t take long enough.”
While stranger varieties, like pickled squash and pickled watermelon rind, aren’t always found on store shelves, Standridge admits that there’s not too much difference between a homemade cucumber pickle and the store-bought versions. But it’s still worth the effort.
“It’s just about the pride,” she says.