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The key to great pickles

MOTLEY – The secret to great pickles is buried in Audrey Tholl’s backyard.

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Tholl, known as The Pickle Lady, has been making her famous garlic dill pickles for at least 40 years. When she and her late husband Ralph farmed their land in rural Motley, she also planted enough cucumbers to make at least 500 quarts of her pickles each summer, which she sold to others and gave to family and friends as Christmas gifts.

She would come in from the garden every other morning, carrying two five-gallon buckets filled with cukes. She’d wash each cucumber gingerly by hand and then begin the process of canning pickles. Two five-gallon pails of cucumbers makes about 48 quarts of her pickles.

Tholl will be 86 on Nov. 7, and is still a pickling pro; she no longer grows her own cucumbers but has a farmer who brings her enough cucumbers to make about 300 quarts of pickles in exchange for some of her canned pickles. She takes orders for her pickles, asking that her loyal customers supply her with their own jars and lids. She writes down when she starts canning each year. This summer she started July 26 and finished canning pickles on Aug. 20. It was an early season this year, she said.

Every Christmas, Tholl’s four children, nine grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild count on getting several quarts of her pickles. They often can’t wait for Christmas and pick them up soon after she cans them.

While a few of her children and grandchildren also can pickles, they just don’t taste like hers, they tell her.

Tholl said she uses a very common pickle recipe, which calls for water, white vinegar, pickling salt, alum and garlic and dill. She only uses fresh-picked cucumbers. The key to her pickles, she said, can be found right on her farm.

“The trick to canning pickles is using well water,” Tholl said with a smile as she sat in her farmhouse dining room. “That’s the secret.”

Tholl has a water softener, but she uses unfiltered well water from the tap in her basement to make her cherished pickles. She doesn’t put the filled jars in a hot water bath to seal the lids but instead puts the tops on the hot jars and lets them sit for two weeks in her home, just where the light hits them so they cure. They easily seal that way, she said. Her pickles never fail and are always crunchy.

Tholl’s granddaughter Heidi Tulenchik also cans her own pickles but she said they don’t compare to her grandma’s pickles.

“You’ve gotta steal Grandma’s water,” Tulenchik joked, of making the perfect pickle. “Either that or it’s a grandma’s love, I don’t know.”

When Tholl turned 80, her family threw her a pickle party, crowning her the Pickle Princess, complete with a crown and a pickle cake. Her laundry room doubles as the Pickle Room and contains a wall mural of her family “pickle” tree. Each new family member is represented by a small cucumber and added to the vines.

“I think I could do this in my sleep,” Tholl said, of making pickles. “Pickles are my specialty. I just enjoy doing it. I look forward to next year already. I’ve got dill in the freezer waiting for next year’s crop.”

Tholl joked that she will pickle anything she can get her hands on. She recently pickled and canned rhubarb and likes to can spicy hot green cherry tomatoes. Last year she pickled apples; this summer she pickled hard-boiled eggs. She’s not fond of spicy pickles but enjoys her traditional garlic dill pickles. She uses the pickle juice to spice up potato salad, along with adding chopped pickles and dill weed.

In her spare time, Tholl also enjoys crossword puzzles and embroidering dish towels for her grandchildren. She also likes to dance, mostly polkas and waltzes.

Tholl also makes head cheese for family and friends who like it. Her husband Ralph, who died in 2010, enjoyed head cheese so she learned how to make it, using pig jowls, beef tongue and beef heart.

She and her daughter, Susie Bartels, also make sauerkraut every year, using three eight-gallon crocks.

But pickles are her passion.

“I’ll be doing this until I die,” Tholl said with a good-natured laugh, of making pickles. “I figure I’ll be living until I die.”