Watermelon Rind Pickles

Ruskin Woman’s Club pickle watermelon rinds for scholarship fund

By LOIS KINDLE

lois@observernews.net

May is a pickling time for members of the Ruskin Woman’s Club. For almost every one of the past 54 years, they’ve gathered in their historic clubhouse on U.S. 41 to make and jar scores of watermelon rind pickles.

“The only time we don’t do it is when the local watermelon crop is bad,” said Juanita Sehorne, a member for more than 30 years. “Several years ago (for example), the watermelons in our area rotted on the vine due to all the rain.”

Sandy Council, of the Ruskin Woman’s Club, initiates the watermelon rind pickling process by cutting the meat out of whole, seedless watermelons, and then cutting the rinds into one-inch-thick pieces for other members to peel.

The project is a major fundraiser for the club. Every year they make more than $1,000 for their annual scholarship fund, which provides $10,000 in scholarships for students at Lennard and East Bay high schools.

The pickles are popular and sell fast.

“We usually buy several jars and put one aside for Christmas dinner or other special occasions,” said Sun City Center resident Lynn Kessel, former food columnist for The Tampa Tribune’s community papers. “They’re so flavorful and delicious and go perfectly as a side for sandwiches.”

At-large club member Dorothy Renshaw, who is now closing in on 100, was instrumental in getting the project started. She got the recipe for the watermelon rind pickles in 1958 from Margaret Dole Council, club president from 1948 to 1950. The recipe was passed to Council from her mother, which makes the recipe more than 80 years old.

Making the pickles was quite common at one time. But as the years passed, the practice waned.

In 1963, a group of club members, including Renshaw, “Bill” Willis, Ruth Elsberry, Jackie Fenzau and Anne Adair, came up with the idea of making and selling watermelon rind pickles as a fundraiser. Everyone was sworn to secrecy about the recipe. In fact, since then, only four women have been privy to the entire list of ingredients used in the pickling process and Sehorne is one of them.

“It’s a four-day (effort) that involves a lot of work,” she said. “But I still enjoy it, and we do it for a good cause.”

Polly Rothenbush agreed.

“It’s a lot of fun but also hard, tiring work,” she said. “I always enjoy seeing the other ladies and doing something that helps the club and students in our area.

“If I’m still alive and well, I’ll be back next year,” she added, with a laugh.

The meticulous process both women refer to includes slicing and chopping watermelons, peeling off the skins, removing the meat, brining and cooking the rinds, and then jarring, sealing and labeling. This year’s volunteers included Sehorne, who led the effort; Rothenbush; Sharon Sweat; Joan de Graff; Barb Diana; Judy Brogden; Katalyn Potter, Anne Fraepier, Charleen Madsen and Debbie Bonebrake.

Barb Diana peels the rinds and any remaining meat off strips of watermelon in the second phase of the pickling process.

The Melon 1 processing plant in Wimauma donated 40 seedless watermelons and Beanie’s Bar & Sports Grill supplied more than 25 pounds of sugar. Members paid for additional sugar, vinegar and salt.

The watermelon meat will go to firefighters at Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Station No. 17 in Ruskin and several area nonprofit groups supported by members.

Proceeds from this project and other Ruskin Woman’s Club fundraising efforts go to the scholarship fund and help pay for clubhouse maintenance.

The 115 pint jars of watermelon rind pickles made by the ladies this year will be sold until they’re gone at $9 each. They also have homemade strawberry jam and orange marmalade for sale at $9 and $6, respectively. To place an order, call Sehorne at 813-645-5598 and leave a message. She’ll be at the Ruskin Woman’s Club, 503 U.S. 41 S, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 23 for pickup.

Checks made payable to the Ruskin Woman’s Club are accepted, as is cash in the exact amount.

“I think this year’s batch is the best we’ve made in several years,” Sehorne said. “The rinds absorbed just enough syrup.

“You can’t find any like these anywhere in the world, because we made them,” she continued. “They’re part of the history of Ruskin.”

 

LOIS KINDLE PHOTOS
Sharon Sweat, left, Joan deGraff and Polly Rothenbush pitch in and help peel watermelon strips and cut them into small cubes to be cooked.

These finished watermelon rind pickles are ready to be labeled after cooling off in the Ruskin Woman’s Club kitchen.

Charleen Madsen holds up a hot jar of watermelon rind pickles that will be cooled and sealed tight before labeling.

Anne Fraepier, left, hands a seal and cover to Barb Diana to be placed atop a newly filled jar of watermelon rind pickles.

Ruskin Woman’s Club members Sharon Sweat, left, and Judy Brogden scoop hot pickles and place them in one-quart jars.

Katalyn Potter removes a sterilized jar to be used as a receptacle for the watermelon rind pickles from a pot of boiling water.

After marinating for two days, these watermelon rind pickle pieces are ready to go back on the stove for the final steps of processing.

A hot syrup of sugar, vinegar and spices that will flavor the cut pieces of watermelon rinds cooks on the stove at the Ruskin Woman’s Club in Ruskin.

Juanita Sehorne stirs a pot of raw cubes that have been brined for an hour in salt to soften them, after which they’re drained and let sit in a tub soaking in a hot syrup of sugar, vinegar and spices for two days.