Getting in a Pickle: Watermelon Gets Germans From Russia Treatment

Halgrimson, Andria Hunter. "Getting in a Pickle: Watermelon Gets Germans From Russia Treatment." Forum, 8 August 2001, sec. B-1.

Watermelon, when combined with dill, garlic, red chiles and green peppers, becomes a delightfully tangy pickle.

When it premiered in early 2000, Sam taped "Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia."

Then he insisted that I watch it. I would like it, he said. It was about food, he said. So I did. Watching doesn’t have any calories.

Loosely translated, Schmeckfest means "festival of food." It is a celebration via the kitchen of the culture of the Germans from Russia, Germans who emigrated to Russia between 1763 to 1862. Many then came to America beginning in the 1870s when they lost special rights given to them by the Russian government.

Sam was right. I loved "Schmeckfest" with its footage of grandmas and moms in their kitchens teaching family and friends how to prepare foods of their heritage and, no doubt, a little history.

I watched, tears often streaming down my face, and thought of my own grandma and mom instructing me in the preparation of certain Norwegian dishes.

One of the foods featured was watermelon pickles. They were so beautiful. Their color was the dark rosy pink of the watermelon flesh, not the pale greenish white of the rind. The pickles looked drizzly and juicy and made me smile. I was enchanted.

Sam's boss, Gene Hoepfner, had grandparents who were Germans from Russia.

Sam mentioned the pickles. Gene said his mother made them and so did he. And soon Gene brought a jar to Sam, cautioning him to keep them in the refrigerator because of the way they were put up.

I was mad for them and wanted to learn to make them immediately, especially when I found out they were refrigerator pickles. I called to thank him and beg him to let me watch how they were made.

Every time Gene made the pickles, he sent a jar home with Sam. Just to tease me. Then I’d call to say thanks and ask when he was going to teach me how.

Finally we set the date. Gene told me what to get and he brought along his wife Jolene and 12-year-old son Preston. And the watermelons, jars and lids.

We set up shop in our kitchen. Our assembly line started with Jolene and Preston cutting up the melons on a cart wheeled into the middle of the room. In his enthusiasm, some of the watermelon slipped from Preston's grasp and plopped on the floor with a splash, seeds sailing everywhere. We did not pickle that particular melon.

Gene and Sam sat at the kitchen table peeling garlic and cutting each clove in half. And once I saw that everyone else was gainfully employed, I sat at the table and tried to take notes amid the hilarity. We had a grand time.

Gene's recipe comes from his mother, Ella Hoepfner. She lives in North Dakota near Hazen and Beulah in Mercer County where my father grew up, although his mother never made pickles like that. Of course Grandma Hunter was Swiss.

Gene says his mother uses the recipe for cucumbers too. I hope she won't mind any liberties I've taken with her recipe. I know I will always be grateful for her willingness to share it.

Jacqueline Dohn Maas, Plymouth, MN, preparing her watermelon pickles for canning.
Click here to see other pictures of Maas and other members of the Verrückte Frauen

Ethnic dishes vary from region to region in the homeland and evolve within families. Actually the recipe I saw on "Schmeckfest" was a sweetened pickle and came from Jamestown, N.D., native Jackie Dohn Mass who now lives in Plymouth, Minn. Her recipe, Grandma Lorraine's Watermelon Pickles, also appears on the next page.

Jackie is a member of the Verrückte Frauen (Crazy Women), a group who meets monthly to prepare traditional recipes of the Germans from Russia and speak of their heritage.

"Schmeckfest" and its companion video, "The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie," which examines the group's history, were produced by Prairie Public Television and North Dakota State University Libraries and have won many awards.
They are available from Prairie Public Television, (800) 359-6900 or on the Web (

After making the pickles, I went out to see Michael M. Miller to brag about my pickles and get permission to use Mass' recipe. Miller is bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at NDSU Libraries, producer of television documentaries and much more. I bought "Sei Unser Gast" which means Be Our Guest.

It is a collection of recipes from the North Star Chapter of The American Historical Society of Germans From Russia. It has several watermelon pickle recipes and many other recipes I plan to try.

I'm only sorry for all of the dilled watermelon pickles I've missed eating. And the next thing I'm going to learn to make is the Pfeffernüsse Brot, which in English is Spiced Watermelon Syrup Bread.

Ella Hoepfner's Delicious Dilled Watermelon Pickles

For each 1-quart jar:

1 head of fresh dill in bottom of jar
2 pieces garlic
1 or 2 hot, small red chiles
½ teaspoon pickling spice
1 to 1½ teaspoons Kosher salt
Loosely stuff jar with watermelon cut in large cubes
Add another head of dill on top
Add 2 more pieces garlic
Add 1 or 2 more hot, small red chiles
And poke in half large green bell pepper, seeded and cut
in strips
Add water to cover ingredients

Boil lids and cover jars. Screw on ring and tighten. Gene uses a flat, circular piece of rubber to get them good and tight. Turn the jars upside-down once or twice to mix things up and let them sit at room temperature for 24 to 36 hours. Then put them in the refrigerator for one week. Refrigerate again after opening if there are any left.

Note: I've been saving the juice and adding more fresh dill, garlic, pickling spice and watermelon to the brine for another batch but they aren't quite as good as the first round.

Grandma Lorraine's Watermelon Pickles

8 cups water
3 cups sugar
2 cups white vinegar
½ cup salt
1¾ ounces pickling spice (use half and tie in cheese cloth)
Boil mixture.

Cut up watermelon. In sterilized jars, put in dill, one hot dried red pepper, and one garlic clove. Then add watermelon chunks, a strip of green pepper and another layer of dill. (I like them hot so I add another pepper and garlic clove.) Pour the hot brine into the jars. Seal the jars and put them in a hot water bath, boiling them for 5 minutes. Remove the jars from the bath and let them cool undisturbed for several hours or until you hear the lids pop and seal.

Grandma notes that this recipe makes about 8 quarts and you can save the extra brine and use it in another batch. The green peppers will discolor when cooked. If the pickling spice is not tied up in cheese cloth when boiled, the brine should be strained before putting it into the jars. Grandma recommends Sweet Princess and Black Beauty watermelons; one of which will produce about 14 quarts.


Jackie Dohn Maas, Plymouth, Minn:

Printed with permission of The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller