Forgotten Southern Recipes

How to Make Watermelon Rind Pickles

Recreating a grandmother’s beloved recipe for a gift of Southern summers

Photo: Johnny Autry

They were an annual treat that made their appearance in a cut crystal dish next to the celery hearts, colossal pimento-stuffed olives, and carrot sticks. They only showed up briefly for Thanksgiving dinner, and I waited patiently to savor their spicy sweetness all year long. I would later learn that watermelon rind pickles represent the best of Southern frugality, taking what would otherwise be discarded and transforming it into something tasty—in this case into the star of a relish tray, or bacon wrapped and broiled for a sweet and savory hors d’oeuvre, or coupled with thinly sliced ham in a biscuit or with a few slices of roast pork. Although the pickles disappeared from my life after my maternal grandmother’s death, I loved them even more in memory, factoring in the knowledge that they were hand prepared from a Virginia recipe she never shared with her daughters and that went with her to the grave.

Watermelon rind pickles have been in the African American culinary lexicon for more than a century, and a version appeared in What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, the second known African American cookbook, published in 1881. Post-Emancipation, the book’s author, Abby Fisher, made her way from Alabama to California, where she is listed in the 1882 San Francisco City Directory as a pickle manufacturer. More recently, the pickles became a means of survival. Patsy Randolph, an African American entrepreneur in Harlem during the Great Depression, collected watermelon rinds from street vendors and transformed them into pickles that she sold along with pepper sauces and relishes. The pickles were her biggest sellers.

Haunted by my childhood delight, I set out to re-create my grandmother’s pickles and came up with a recipe that while not exactly replicating hers, comes closer in taste than any of the commercial brands I’ve tried, which trade a complex spice-infused flavor for sugary sweetness. Though I prepare them infrequently, they’re one of the first items that I think of for special meals for their ability to evoke the taste of memory.

This article appears in the August/September 2020 issue of  Garden & Gun. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.


    • 9 cups cubed watermelon rind (1-inch cubes)

    • ½ cup salt

    • 2 qt. plus 2 cups water

    • 1¾ cups cider vinegar

    • ½ cup balsamic vinegar

    • 2 cups firmly packed brown sugar

    • 1 lemon, thinly sliced

    • ½ tsp. fresh ginger, minced

    • 2 cinnamon sticks, crushed

    • ¾ tsp. whole cloves

    • 2 tsp. allspice berries, crushed

    • Note: The amount of spices may be slightly varied to individual taste for a unique and personalized flavor.


  1. As you prepare the watermelon rind for cubing, be sure to remove all the green skin and all but a small amount of the red meat. Combine the salt and 2 quarts water in a bowl large enough to accommodate the cubed rind, and stir to dissolve the salt. Submerge the rind in the brine and let soak overnight.

  2. Drain the rind, rinse with fresh water, and drain again. Place rind in a large nonreactive saucepan, add water to cover, and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered for 15 minutes or until fork tender.

  3. Meanwhile, combine 2 cups water, cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, lemon slices, and spices in another nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar. Lower heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes or until a thin syrup forms.

  4. Drain the watermelon rind and add it to the simmering syrup and continue to simmer for about 20 minutes or until the rind is translucent. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the rind to hot sterilized canning jars. Ladle in the hot unstrained syrup to cover, allowing about ¼-inch headroom, then cover tightly.

  5. Process the jars in a hot-water bath for 25 minutes. Remove from the bath, let cool, and check the seal. If you find a jar without a good seal, store it in the refrigerator; the rinds will keep for up to a month. Store jars with a good seal in a cool dark place for up to several months—if the pickles don’t get eaten first.