Virginia woman follows path of mother, ‘a canning artist’
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Ask Brenda Murray what makes her pickled beets so good, and the talkative and outgoing Stafford County woman suddenly acts like she’s protecting state secrets.
She gives a sly look, her blue eyes get even bigger and she seems to momentarily lose her voice. While she’s happy to share every other recipe she’s found on the Internet or inherited from her late mother, the formula for preserving the bright purple root vegetables is known only to her family.
“All I can say is the secret is in the spices,” she said.
The mixture won over her husband, Rob, who previously turned up his nose at the thought of beets. He based his opinion on what came out of a can and tasted like mush while the pickling recipe used by his wife’s family includes sugar and salt, cinnamon and apple-cider vinegar.
“I never liked them until I had hers,” he said.
Whatever’s in the mix, which she sells at the M&K Market in North Stafford under the label of Old-Time Pickled Beets, has customers beating a path to her booth. The market is open Saturdays in the commuter lot off Staffordboro Boulevard, across from Lowe’s.
“Everything she sells is good, but her pickled beets are my favorite,” said Kathy Winston who works in the booth next to Murray. “Oh, my god, her cherry preserves are so good, and the three-bean salad and pickles are to die for. They’re just as good as my mom’s.”
Praise like that is about as good as it gets for the 62-year-old Murray whose late mother, Myrtle Brigham, was “a canning artist.” Brigham was featured in The Free Lance-Star in March 1996 among piles of peppers, jars of colorful vegetables and walls lined with blue ribbons.
In the article, Brigham said she wanted to keep busy until she passed on because she didn’t “want no slackness.”
She was true to her word. Until her death six years ago at age 88, Brigham oversaw the planting of a garden and the canning of its harvest.
Murray decided last winter to pick up where her mother left off, but instead of keeping the canned goods for home shelves, she’d try to sell them to the public.
“Everybody who came to my mom’s house raved over her canning, but especially her pickled beets,” Murray said. “I wondered if others would like it.’”
She sent her mother’s recipe to Virginia Tech for evaluation, and Joell Eifert, director of the food innovations program, said it met requirements to be classified as an acidic food.
Murray also spent $170 on a pH tester, and she and her husband, Rob, who’s retired from the Marine Corps, check every batch.
“We want to make sure we have a quality product and that we’re giving the same quality product each time,” he said.
Brenda Murray, who’s worked at numerous jobs from being a chauffeur at Quantico to driving a bus, thought canning would be something fun for the couple to do in their retirement. But as they’ve taken beets to market, customers have asked what else she makes.
That’s led to the addition of more than a dozen products, from relish and chow-chow to pickled tomatoes, which can be used in pizzas, and blueberry preserves that taste great on biscuits or vanilla ice cream.
It’s been an interesting journey for a woman who, as a child, couldn’t stand when canning season came around.
“I didn’t want anything to do with it,” she said.
One of six children of William Robert and Myrtle Brigham, Brenda Murray is a lifelong resident of Stafford County. She gets emotional when she remembers visiting friends from Stafford High School, from which she graduated in 1974, and realizing that she came from a poor family by comparison.
Other kids didn’t slop the hogs or know how to take a blow torch to a frozen pipe to make sure the animals had water. Others didn’t have to start dinner for their parents like the Brigham kids did; their mother and father both worked at Quantico. He was a carpenter, and she worked in the laundry, then came home and worked even more. He did side jobs and she tended the garden and kitchen.
It pains Brenda Murray to remember how embarrassed she was to have friends visit her home on the farm.
“As I got older, I realized I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood,” she said. “When you’re young, you don’t appreciate what you have.”
She was in her mid-20s before she showed any interest in preserving food. She and Rob had started dating, and he’s from Philadelphia. On a visit to Delaware, she tasted homemade preserves and wanted to know how to make them herself.
She went home to her mother’s kitchen. For the next four decades, she practiced the fine art of putting fresh fruits and vegetables into Ball jars, mixing the sugary sauce or vinegar-based brine that preserved them and properly heating the contents — and sealing the lids — to prevent spoiling.
Those who’ve tasted her products said she knows her stuff.
“I thought mine was good,” fellow vendor Vivienne Chiodo said about Murray’s pickles and beets, “but hers is fabulous.”
Brenda Murray regularly thinks about her mother as she’s working over a hot stove on a stifling day. While the elder was a bit of a “dictator” when food stuff needed to be canned, Murray likes to work at a less harried pace. She rests when she gets tired and picks up the process when she’s ready.
“I love you mama, but I’m glad I’m doing it my way,” she said.
Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/