- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) - If cucumbers had legs, they’d run when they saw Mr. Pickles coming.

In fact, no vegetable or fruit is safe around the 86-year-old canning machine.

Harlow Cole—some of his customers call him “Mr. Pickles”—bathes cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, watermelon, asparagus and beets in vinegar or sugar and processes them in gleaming quart and pint jars of goodness.

On a recent morning, Cole wore a floral shirt in his tiny Janesville kitchen that smelled of vinegar and dill.

Scheduled for production that day? His grandmother’s bread-and-butter pickles.

Cole recited the ingredients: sugar, vinegar, mustard seed and turmeric.

“And one other ingredient, which I never tell,” Cole said, the twinkling in his eye hinting at a sly sense of humor.

Salsa was next, but made from a recipe of his own. Grandma and mother hadn’t heard of salsa back when they were canning.

Cole’s mother taught him how to can when he was 12, The Janesville Gazette (http://bit.ly/1rTE7TV ) reported.

Cole grows much of his own produce, including tomatoes, garlic and dill, in a garden behind his Burbank Avenue apartment building. He buys onions and green peppers from a local producer because they are cheaper to buy than grow.

Wisconsin’s “pickle bill” allows Cole to sell a limited amount of home-canned foods without a license.

Today, Cole’s gait is slow and his back hunched by arthritis. He fell in the garden on a recent summer morning and leans on a shopping cart for support.

But his years don’t deter him.

Cole’s fingers are steady as he cuts by hand the cucumbers for the bread-and-butter pickles—”of which I’ve canned many, many, many in the last four years.”

They are a best-seller.

“They tell me I should get a slicer,” Cole said. “But I like them this way, the old-fashioned way. They taste better.”

Cole urged a visitor to try his apple butter.

“You’ll be moving in,” he said.

Cole sometimes toils 12 hours a day at the height of the growing season, canning up to 40 quarts.

“It keeps me out of the taverns,” Cole said with another smile.

On this day, clean empty quart jars lined the sink. Rings and lids waited nearby.

A strainer was piled high with yellow cucumbers. A colander brimmed with ripe tomatoes. Garlic soaked nearby in a salt brine. The bread-and-butter sauce simmered on the stove next to a pot of heating water.

Be very afraid if you are a cucumber within Cole’s reach. He makes dill pickles and horseradish pickles; slippery Jims, bread-and-butter pickles and kosher-style pickles; sweet-and-sour pickles, hot pickles and hot, hot pickles.

Cole also pickles peppers, green tomatoes, watermelon rind, corn relish, sauerkraut, asparagus, jalapenos, mushrooms, beans and beets, the latter are another best seller.

The result of Cole’s labor is stashed all over his small apartment. Jars line shelves in the living room and fill the kitchen table. About 240 jars are stored under his bed, and more are stacked in boxes in his van.

On summer Sundays, Cole rises at 2 a.m. to sell his produce from his van at the Jefferson Speedway and occasionally sets up shop at Oak Village Garden Center markets. He sells throughout the winter at the Janesville Mega Sale at the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.

Cole was born in 1927 and grew up during the Depression in Fort Atkinson and Jefferson.

But he and his three siblings were never hungry. His mother and grandmother tended an acre garden. His dad, who delivered milk with a horse and wagon, made beer and wine that he traded for eggs and chickens, onions and potatoes.

Cole had a varied career that included working in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s war headquarters in Japan, where he met the emperor of Japan and Marilyn Monroe. Back in the states, he raised mink and dogs, sold high-end shoes in Oak Park, Illinois, and was a caregiver in California.

He moved to Janesville seven years ago after he retired to be near a sister and nieces.

Cole ramped up his canning several years ago to replace the antiques he sold at flea markets when sales were declining.

Cole has a loyal following, and customers buy dozens of jars at a time. Customers get a discount if they return the jars.

Cole said he enjoys meeting the people and acknowledged a gift of gab.

He talked about one customer, a little boy who loves Cole’s pickles. He learned the child’s name was Steve, and Cole addressed the youth by name.

“He’s a tough little bugger,” Cole said with a smile.

The boy demanded to know how Cole knew his name.

“Mr. Pickles knows everything,” he told the boy.

At the very least, he can pickle anything.

___

Information from: The Janesville Gazette, http://www.gazetteextra.com

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