Ralph Gray’s sister-in-law Ruth Hartley used to have Ralph and Riley Water Pickles over for supper on Saturday night. Ruth would say to Ralph, “Do you want to have supper with us on Saturday,” and he’d say “Are you having beans?” because Ralph ate only baked beans at Satur-day supper. Ruth provided ham, hot dogs, or meatloaf, made homemade baked beans and some biscuits. “He always had to have brown bread,” said Ruth, “he’d bring it, canned, sometimes with raisins, sometimes plain.” There was usually coleslaw.
“Then,” said Ruth, “Ralph would say, ‘I’ve got some of Edna’s Riley Water Pickles,’ and he’d bring those. We always had to have the Mrs. J.A.P. Cake, named for Luella, Mrs. Joe A. Pendleton, a simple one egg chocolate cake, with butter and confectioners sugar frosting. That was dessert.”
“Supper was laced with tales of yore,” said Ruth, and with the zip of the pickles.
Now this bit about the riley or muddy water needs some explanation. One American colloquialism is to describe something or someone disturbed as riled up and often when water is riled up it is also muddy. These pickles are made with dry mustard powder in the brine, and they look like the very dickens, a mucky looking mess in a jar.
I poked around a little in my older Maine cookbooks to see if I could find any other simple pickles named muddy or riley or made with dry mustard powder. I did, but it appears that when people want to put a recipe in print they want to sound more refined than Riley Water implies. So in Marjorie Standish’s Cooking Down East, there they are on page 231 named “Old Fashioned Sour Cucumber Pickles,” using twice as much mustard and half as much sugar as the recipe, which follows. The Pastor’s Aid Society of Knight Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church of Calais, Maine, emitted a cookbook in 1922, which gives a recipe at the opposite end of the scale from Mrs. Standish’s: “Sweet Cucumber Pickles,” same procedure with dry mustard powder but three cups of sugar.
The Bingham Grange Cook Book printed in 1922 shows these pickles by the name “Sour Cucumber Pickles.” The Ladies’ Society of the First Universalist Church in Machias, issued a cookbook, Machias Cookery, in 1909, revised in 1926. They called them “Saco Pickles,” but the Saco Women’s Educational and Industrial Union’s Cook Book, from 1923, doesn’t mention them at all.
Ralph Gray’s daughter Susie Wilbur gave me the recipe, which follows. She got it from her Aunt Edna, the same Edna Ralph mentioned above. Susie says “Aunt Edna and I used to eat a chunk or two of Riley Water Pickles with the salmon sandwiches we had as a snack whenever I was up there tying quilts.”
One reason Susie really appreciates these pickles is what she calls the “Effort Factor.” Some things, she reports, taste better in proportion to how little effort is required to make them. They have a sour saltiness, a real zippy “twang,” said Susie. These do not require canning. They turn olive green when they are ready to eat, and have a firm but not crisp texture. The cucumbers need to be put in the brine whole, and when you want some just cut off a chunk, “an inch or larger,” says Susie.
Islesboro’s Ralph Gray died last month, his sister Edna a couple of years ago. Goodness knows how much his neighbors and family will miss Ralph, as they have already missed Edna. Maybe that next generation coming up, folks like Susie and the other Ralph, will at least keep the Riley Water Pickle tradition going strong.
Riley (or Muddy) Water pickles
To a gallon of vinegar use:
1 cup of salt
2 cups of sugar
One half-cup dry mustard
Pack small, fresh cukes into a sterile jar. Pour in the juice and close it up. It will be ready in a couple of weeks or longer. Keep cool.