For two days on Oct. 7 and 8, members of Christ Episcopal Church in River Forest will snap on their latex gloves and turn the church kitchen into a steaming pickle factory. The harvest season ritual has taken place for 18 years, according to organizers.
Six large vats of brine boil on the industrial stove, stirred with hand-made wooden paddles. “About 25-30 people” take part, said Rich Millett, chairman of the Christ Church “Fun-Raiser” Committee. The end product: festive jars of “Episcopickles” each be-ribboned and labeled with a halo.
It all started when a parishioner discovered a recipe for 15 jars of Episcopickles in another parish’s cookbook.
“Since then we’ve been doubling and tripling the recipe,” said Millett.
This year, church members will prepare 450 jars of the sweet-yet-tart, bread-and-butter pickles, up from 325 jars last year. “As of now, we have 236 jars pre-ordered.” The church sends jars to customers as far away as Australia, England, Canada and Mexico. The rest are sold at the church’s Holiday Hospitality Bazaar on Nov. 5.
Over the years, Millet and crew have been tweaking the recipe, which is top secret but involves “about 125 pounds of sugar — tons of sugar!”
The first night the cukes arrive — in 25-pound rubber tubs (that would be almost two “pecks” of pickles each). Everything is provided by a local supply house in Chicago. Hard-working parishioners get to work slicing and chunking for hours.
“That’s why we wear the gloves,” said Millett.
The next morning “at the crack of dawn,” hundreds of pint-sized Ball canning jars, gum-binder lids and canning rings are washed and sterilized in the church’s industrial dishwasher.
Next, they prepare the brine, which consists of vinegar, sugar, peppers and special pickling spices. It boils in batches in huge vat-like pots.
“They have to be constantly stirred,” said Millett. “If you leave it for a second, it boils over. There’s nothing worse than cleaning up pickle juice. It goes into the stove and all the way down.”
Specially treasured are the hand-made wooden pickle paddles, carved by the late Bill Chambers, parishioner and mechanical engineer.
“He looked at each pot,” Millett said, “measured and shaved the paddle so it scraped all the sugar off the bottom perfectly.”
When the brine is boiled, crew members carefully pour it over the open jars of new pickles, then seal the lids and immerse the jars in boiling water. The pickles are refrigerated and turned on the two following Sundays so “all the juice covers the cucumbers.”
The finished product brings in revenue, some of which goes to church operating expenses.
“We make donations to Episcopal charities in Chicago: Lawrence Hall Youth Service halfway house and the Cathedral Shelter of Chicago,” said Millett.
Episcopickles are a big hit at the Holiday Hospitality Bazaar, where they sell for $4.75 a jar alongside homemade cookies, jams, goodies and gift items from local craftsmen.
“We try to make it a pleasant experience where people can do Christmas shopping,” said Millett. Almost 300 people attended the bazaar last year, he noted, and the Episcopickles were snapped up quickly.
“[Pickle production] is a lot of fun and camaraderie, a great social activity for us,” he said.