When I was five, the lady next door passed away. Her relatives took what they wanted from the house, but set her old cast iron cook stove outdoors under an old peach tree and the house set abandoned for years. That ancient stove became a playhouse for me and my six year old neighbor, Betty. The lot was securely fenced and my mother could watch us from our kitchen window.
That year my mother cleaned out her spice cabinets because of pantry moths, and put the tins of herbs and spices outside. I knew many of the spices because of their fragrance and considered these tins of seasonings a rare find for our make believe kitchen in the neighbor’s yard.
I carted the spices next door and arranged them in the warming oven above the cook top. Since both of us children were just beginning to read, it didn’t occur to us to use alphabetic order, but instead, we put them in the order of our favorite smells and the foods we would make believe we were using them in.
I liked cinnamon, so that was first, followed by stick cinnamon, allspice and cloves. Nutmeg followed, then mint leaves, oregano, marjoram and thyme. Parsley had no smell at all, nor did the bay leaf, and neither Betty nor I liked the smells of fennel, fenugreek or celery seed, so those were relegated to the last place on the shelf.
I had watched my mother make pickles that year and Betty and I found an old crock in the left over household items and pushed it up beside the stove. The peach tree over the stove was full of still green, late summer peaches and we began picking them for our pickle crock. We added rainwater to the crock as the peaches filled the space, much like my mother had done when making her delicious seven day sweet cucumber pickles earlier that year.
After what I determined to be enough time for the “pickles” to be ready, Betty and I decided to can the pickles, just as both of our mothers had done with their pickles. Fortunately, the old garden shed not far from the antique stove had boxes of old, blue canning jars and lots of zinc canning lids. We chose pint sized jars, which were easier for our small hands than the quart and half gallon jars were.
On our “canning” day, we put the fruit jars in the oven to sterilize them. Never mind there was no fire in the stove, this was make believe. We “baked” the jars and used big, fuzzy leaves of the mullein plant for our hot pads to remove the jars and set them on the stove. We then filled each jar with our peaches from the old stone crock, adding the make believe brine, as well. Then to each jar I added a pinch of allspice, one of cinnamon, one of cloves, and then, because Betty thought it looked nice, we added a bay leaf and a stick of cinnamon. We screwed on the lids and set them in rows across the top of the cast iron stove.
Mother, who was certainly watching the two busy children out the window came over to investigate. “Look Mother, we’ve made pickled peaches!” I said with excitement. I removed the lid of one jar for her to smell the wonderful, spicy fragrance.
Mother looked over our work and said, “You two have really worked hard. These are beautiful pickles and you’ve filled each jar to the top.” Then she said, “You realize, don’t you, these are not to be eaten?”
Oh, yes, we knew that, we were just playing make believe. We were going to turn our attention from our kitchen to making it a restaurant and serve even more things. Since we were the only children our age in our little town, the restaurant clientele would be our pets and Betty’s dolls.
I think back to that summer and what pleasure we got from Mom’s discarded herb and spice tins. I learned since that cleaning out the spice cabinet is a good thing to do once a year. Herbs like parsley, celery leaves, bay and chives, lose three fourths of their flavor after about nine months. Stronger spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice, are good for about eighteen months. Refreshing the jars of all those things on a regular basis insures their best flavors. But one summer, with old spices, two small children had a great deal of fun, thanks to my mother’s housecleaning of her spice cabinet.
Readers questions and comments are always welcome at Longcreekherbs@yahoo.com. Visit Jim’s blog to see what he grows: http://jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com.