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Curing cucumbers in Cornwall

CORNWALL — David Cowan will be the first to say that he is not a pickle-making expert: he doesn’t tour, nor give demonstrations, nor enter his pickles in contests or county fairs, nor even necessarily know more about the process than anyone else who’d gathered in the bright kitchen of Parish House, on Sunday, Aug. 23, to watch him make pickles.

Cowan has been making pickles and fermentations from his garden cucumbers for some 12-odd years, but by trade, he’s an engineer; his recipe development projects, like his garden, are the product of experimentation and personal curiosity.

He established his garden after moving to Cornwall in 2003; pickling and preserving was a natural next step.

“Preserving is great,” said Cowan. “In late summer, you have way too much produce, and by February, you have nothing left.”

Looking to up his game in 2010, Crowan cold-called Bea Colby, who won first place that year for her bread and butter pickles at the Goshen Fair, and asked her to teach him how to make pickles.

“I’d always loved pickles, I was planning on growing cucumbers, I said to myself why not learn from her?” said Cowan. When he made his request to Colby over the phone, the line went silent, until finally she gave her verdict: “‘Well,’ she said, ‘as long as you never enter them in the Goshen Fair, I’ll tell you what I do.’” (Cowan did not give away Colby’s secret.)

In 2023, Cowan teamed up with the Cornwall Garden Club to share his knowledge with others. 

One hour into the lesson at Parish House, multiple pots steamed on the stovetop and cucumber slices brined in mismatched bowls. A guest ran home to get sugar for the pickling liquid. One of the reasons that Cowan loves preserving, he said, is that “it isn’t baking—nothing has to be perfect.”

What began as a tidy demonstration inevitably devolved into the friendly, festive chaos of the kitchen in motion: Snack breaks purported to be taste tests; conversations overlapped with Cowan’s instructions; an occasional Eureka! shout indicated that someone had finally located the colanders, or the silverware, or another bowl; and at the end of it there were multiple jars of bread and butter pickles, practically ready to eat.

“The philosophy of this garden club is to be fun, not serious,” said Charlotte Van Doren, who started the Cornwall Garden Club in 2020.

“What I love to do is garden,” she said, and what she missed in the pandemic was the kind of fellowship that flourishes around shared interests. “Not everyone wants to play tennis all day.”

The Club hosts trips, workshops, parties, exchanges, and even non-gardening fellowship events like sewing circles. Unlike the Sharon or Milbrook garden clubs, which are members of the national Garden Club of America and require applications, the Cornwall Garden Club is open to all—including people who don’t live in Cornwall. 

“There’s no gatekeeping,” said Van Doren.“It’s meant to echo the culture of the town: creative, eclectic, laid back, community people.”

The pickling demonstration was the Garden Club’s third and final installment of the summer program “Out of Our Gardens: Heirloom Series” (the first was lessons in herbalism and tea making, the second a jam making workshop). For all of them, members of the committee had simply invited friends or people they’d heard about to lead the events.

“The garden club is for the curious,” not the serious, said Van Doren.

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