Joyce Bupp, farm wife

“What’s in a mixed pickling spice and what would be the amounts to use?”

That was the early-morning message that turned up in my email recently, the latest back-and-forth cyber conversation between a good friend who is relatively new to the “canning” scene and me.

Good question. What is in a mixed pickling spice mix, and where might it be available these days?

Years ago, every little country grocery store carried mixed pickling spice, alum, lime, canning salt, saltpeter and similar necessities for pickling, preserving and otherwise “putting up” food for the long, cold months of winter.

Most families, including a significant percentage of those who lived in small towns and rural villages, tended a garden. Fresh produce was available based on the season ... and if your relatives and friends had extra.

And, in July, just like in the gardens of many of us country folks who still love growing and picking our own fresh things, the patches were overflowing with the likes of cucumbers run amok and squash swelling up overnight into weaponry size.

One of the most favored and dependable ways of preserving that produce was (and still is, for that matter) pickling it in a brine or a syrup that both flavors and safeguards the long-term storage of many fresh garden items.

Thus, many homes went into the winter with basement shelves weighted down with jars and crocks filled with a multitude of pickled items, from asparagus to zucchini, and almost every vegetable alphabetically in between.

While the practice of home canning is certainly less used today than it was in the days of our moms and grandmothers, there are still a considerable number of us around who still enjoy “putting” up produce to our own tastes, often of a variety or a treasured family recipe.

Crispy, homemade, seven-day pickles is one of those.

I’ve been donating excess from a steady production of fresh cucumbers from four amazingly productive hills of vines scattered around the farm. One is on the usual straw/hay/manure compost pile outside the calf nursery, where the vines are straying off onto the calf-condo complex nearby.

This one hill generally supplies all the cucumbers I need for fresh eating, sharing with others and putting away a number of jars of bread-and-butter pickles.

Three additional single-plant hills are in the meadow by the pond, planted along with donated cantaloupe seedlings, which the unmarked plants were originally thought to be.

Only when I checked the vines a few weeks ago and came up with a long, hefty cucumber, did the truth come out.

So I’ve had cucumbers ripening in the proverbial “up to my ears” volume

A friend who has annually, for years and years, made several dozen quarts of seven-day pickles for use at our church’s suppers has become a chief recipient of all my excess cucumbers. What a great use for all those extra cukes.

When my novice pickle-making friend was searching for a recipe to use up her own wealth of cucumbers, I emailed her Grandma Miller’s seven-day pickles recipe, which calls for the mixed-pickling spice.

It never entered my mind that the spice blend would be unfamiliar to a pickle-making newcomer, or if it can be found on local suburban supermarket spice shelves.

After some checking, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that mixed pickling spice is still quite readily available. But, based on past experience of searching for fruit pectin when I forgot to get some ahead of jelly making, often certain seasonal-use items of that nature have a tendency to disappear from the shelves just about the time you need them.

A host of others making the same thing needs the same ingredient at the same time.

So, if you find yourself in a “pickle,” and are unable to locate the blend, I’ve learned you can make your own by combining spices like mustard seed, allspice, coriander seed, whole cloves, ground ginger, crushed red pepper flakes, bay leaves and crushed cinnamon sticks ... and whatever else you might want to experiment with.

Maybe I’ll have to give those seven-day pickles a try again sometime.

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.