• Posted by Dakota Kim on March 8th, 2009, 3:25 PM
    Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell

    Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell

    A pickle is a metafood—itself, only more so. The stinky pickled cabbage, given anthropomorphic animation, would look down its long, wise nose at the young, odorless raw cabbage, highly suspect of its taste, digestibility, staying power, and nutritional content. The crisp, sweet cucumber is challenged to be tangy and pungent, and the pepper’s sun-baked hotness ascends to a new level of eye-watering and saliva-welling.

    Pickled foods have a long and storied past that reaches back to the earliest kitchens—historians say that food was first pickled in the birthplace of civilization, Mesopotamia, in 2400 BC. According to the New York Food Museum‘s Pickle History Timeline, Cleopatra credited her beauty, and Julius Caesar his troops’ physical and spiritual strength, to pickles, and Amerigo Vespucci prevented scurvy on the high seas by feeding them to his sailors. Especially in colder climates, pickled foods supplied vegetable nutrients throughout winter. In New York in the mid-17th century, Dutch settlers planted cucumbers all over Brooklyn, which were brined and then sold on Washington, Canal, and Fulton Streets. This tradition carried into the 20th century, with kosher dills being sold by scores of Jewish vendors on the Lower East Side.

    Although Americans think of “pickles” as pickled cucumbers, a pickle is actually the result of a process and so can refer to any pickled food. Cabbages and other rough vegetables are particular favorites, as they hold up against strong brines and are easier on the digestive system when pickled. But everything from lotus root to eggs can be, and are, pickled. Moroccan and Algerian lemon pickles with harissa; Indian mango pickles; Mexican carrot pickles with jalapeno and onions; German sauerkraut; French cornichons; Mediterranean olives; Middle Eastern pickled turnips, green tomatoes, and okra…to name just a few.

    Wheelhouse Pickles

    The Japanese have taken the art of pickling to obsessive heights, with their tsukemono pickles eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Classifications include umeboshi, tart plums, and the misozuke, which might include garlic and pumpkin embedded in miso and sake for several months. Korean kimchi, which describes a process involving salt and chili peppers more than a particular type of food, includes a wide variety of side dishes from cabbage to radishes.

    The process most often used by modern picklers is the simple brining of the original food in salt, vinegar or oil or alcohol, and sometimes spices. Recently, though, an old fashioned process called lactic acid fermentation has been reintroduced by some smaller-scale picklers. The process requires only the vegetables and sea salt. The magic ingredient is time, anywhere from days to weeks to months, depending on the vegetable and the desired outcome. (Kimchi is a product of this type of fermentation.) Lactic acid advocates claim that it creates a healthier product, because the vegetables’ “good” bacteria are not killed off by vinegar. Meanwhile, the resulting acid kills “bad” bacteria, helps with digestion, and provides a wealth of nutrients from acetylcholine to B12 to vitamin C.

    In step with the locavore and artisanal movements, small, specialty pickle companies are popping up across America. Stubbornly fighting institutional, mass-produced pickles, these picklers depend on the hard work of families, friends, and small staffs. Bob McClure, owner of McClure’s Pickles, got into the business two years ago after realizing that the pickles he and his brother Joe had been making since they were kids, using their great-grandmother’s recipe, could have wide appeal. McClure, based in Detroit and New York, buys from farmers markets whenever he can, and each jar of pickles is hand-packed by a member of his family. The labels are printed in Brooklyn on recycled paper with wind-powered electricity—and McClure wants to keep it that way. “People want to know things…like where their food comes from. When you buy from a local producer, you get your answer right there,” says McClure.

    Keeping it local is equally important to Daniel Rosenberg of Real Pickles, which makes dill pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled cabbage, and carrots. Rosenberg uses only organic vegetables from family farms in Vermont and Massachusetts, where Real Pickles is based. For Rosenberg, pickling was more than a vocation; it’s a way of life. “I had a renewed interest in raw foods and in healthy, traditional food and a livelihood that promoted social activism and regional food systems,” Rosenberg said. Eschewing vinegar and pasteurization, Rosenberg favors lactic acid fermentation. The vegetables are mixed with sea salt, which preserves the vegetables, then packed into jars and put in 65- to 80-degree storage. The natural sugar in the vegetables converts to lactic acid, which ferments and preserves them. Cucumber pickles take a week, while hard, persnickety cabbage may require several months to ferment.

    Joe & Bob McClure

    These handmade pickles may be pricier than the average jar of Vlasic, but they have better ingredients, and are labor-intensive—just ask Jon Orren, owner of Wheelhouse Pickles, where all the pickles are salted and carefully laid out to dry so that they retain their perfect crunchiness. Orren is part of a burgeoning Brooklyn artisanal food scene that has fostered culinary symbiosis. Orren produces many unusual pickles, from champagne vinegar spears to gin turnips and horseradish wax beans, and uses leftover wort, a byproduct of brewing, from nearby Sixpoint Craft Ales in his relish.

    Along these DIY lines lie the even smaller pickle companies that stake their claim at farmers markets, such as Salem, Oregon’s Pretty Pickle Company. “I couldn’t afford presents,” says owner Margaret Shell, who started out with a vegetable stand. “So I made jams and jellies and pickles and put them in baskets for gifts for 17 years. People started saying I should sell them so I got certified.” Shell now makes garlic dills, pickled asparagus, green beans, and garlic, and a Meyer lemon tapenade.

    Another small pickle company got its start from the leftover pickle juice normally poured down the sink—which is the foundation of Bob’s Pickle Pops, also known as Pickle Sickles. The idea came to founder John Howard when he owned a roller skating rink in Seguin, Texas, where he froze pickle juice for the roller skaters and was soon selling out of his product every day.

    There are as many ways to eat pickles as there are to make them: Add pickles to pizza sauce. Have some okra pickles in your after-work martini. Try pickles casseroles or on top of falafel. Make quick lettuce or nori wraps with rice, meat or tofu, soy sauce and kimchi. Try plum pickles for dessert. And as for all that leftover pickle juice, freeze it into Pickle Sickles. or make salad dressing, marinate meat in it, or just guzzle it straight. Of course, if you eat your pickles deep-fried on a stick, as Midwesterners do at state fairs, or heap them on top of barbecued pork, some of their health benefits may be negated but it’ll be worth every tangy, fatty bite.

    “It’s like memories in a jar,” notes Shell. “Pickles make good food taste better.”

    Dakota Kim writes from a San Francisco bay window, alternating between a clackety green Smith Corona Sterling with plenty of punch left and a brokendown Mac nearing its demise. Her work has appeared in Gastronomica, Hyphen, Bitch, Block, Queens Chronicle and McSweeneys.

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