Remembering family history through tomato seeds and pickles

Editorials, Gardening 0 16

Cara and Mamie Brown in the early 1970′s.

Twenty years ago during a trip to Virginia and Maryland, I interviewed my great-aunt about our family’s history. As we sat in her formal living room inside her 200-year-old red brick home on the outskirts of Leesburg, Virginia, she rattled off stories about her parents and siblings, and life in the mountains of West Virginia.

Not only were family names discovered, a past way of life was revealed. A few Civil War lessons were intertwined with our conversations. I learned how my great-grandmother made butter, pickles, and how many tomatoes were canned each summer.

Our conversation moved to the kitchen as she prepared dinner. As I set the table and we continued to talk, she placed a dish of sweet pickles on the table to accompany the meal. Those sweet pickles had a lasting impression on me growing up. They were served at every Brown family reunion, and at every meal at both of my great aunts homes. It was hard not to eat the entire bowl.

After dinner, my great-aunt copied down her mother’s recipe for sweet pickles for me to keep. It was a recipe I never attempted to make until this summer.

A donation of cucumber starts that were randomly planted in our garden yielded more cucumbers this summer than any spa or salad could hold. It was time to try my hand at making pickles. With guidance from my mom, several jars of dill pickles were produced, made from a store-bought pre-mixed packet that took 6 hours total. It was a success, and somehow I had the confidence to try a sweet variation.

I found my great-aunt’s recipe, and quickly remembered why I had never attempted to make the Brown family sweet pickles. It takes eight days. A distant cousin sent me a slightly shorter variation of the recipe – requiring only seven days. As long as we weren’t heading out of town, it could be done. So I took the plunge.

Sliced cucumbers turning into sweet pickles.

Under the watchful eyes of my children, we bathed those cucumbers and heated a syrup concoction for eight days. The result: crisp, spicy sweet pickles, tasting just like my great-aunts and my great-grandmother’s. My children couldn’t stop eating them.

During those eight days of pickle making, I shared stories about their great-grandfather, aunts and uncles. Family history came to life for them, through words, taste and smells.

This summer, I will try growing my great-grandmother’s pink tomatoes, thanks to the Seed Savers Exchange out of Decorah, Iowa. The Exchange is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds. They have been promoting the preservation and utilization of heirloom varieties for 37 years.

In 1995, my aunt donated her grandmother’s tomato seeds to Seed Savers Exchange. Seventeen years later, ‘Mamie Brown’s Pink’ USDA certified organic tomato has been in released for purchase to the public for the very first time.

Between her pickles and tomatoes, Mamie Orndorff Brown is going to have a memorable year. The woman who led a simple life raising four children on a farm in West Virginia, which is now the site of the National Radio Astronomy Observaory, is being noted for her culinary and gardening skills. I met her once. My mother recalls the words Mamie said when she first met me, “why her hair is not red, it’s golden.” She passed away in 1975. As I reflect back on her life, I hope somehow she knows that her memory is not lost. I am grateful for the history lessons my great-aunts gave me, and for our family’s sweet pickle recipe.

As you gather this holiday with your family, take the time to re-tell the stories, and write them down. Once one generation is gone, you can never reclaim the stories for future generations. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get a sweet pickle recipe or family tomato seeds to boot.

For more information about genealogy, visit where you will find access to census, military, immigration records and birth, marriage, and death records.

To learn more about the Seed Savers Exchange visit

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