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A Brief History of Pickles

From ancient Mesopotamia to New York deli counters, pickles have played a vital role in the global culinary scene. But where do pickles come from, and how did the cucumber become the standard-issue pickling vegetable in the States?

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Is there an alternate timeline where America is known as the United States of the Pickle-Dealer? It seems unlikely, but there’s an element of truth to this half-sour hypothetical. Amerigo Vespucci didn’t discover the Americas, contrary to what the map makers who named the continents believed, but his given name did end up lending itself to the so-called “new world.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson once called Vespucci “the pickle-dealer at Seville,” a derisive label that may have stretched the truth a bit, but pointed towards a very real part of the itinerant Italian’s biography.

Before traveling to the New World himself, Vespucci worked as a ship chandler—someone who sold supplies to seafaring merchants and explorers. These supplies included foods like meat, fish, and vegetables that had been pickled, which meant they would stay preserved beneath a ship’s deck for months. Without pickling, expeditions had to rely on dried foods and ingredients with naturally long shelf lives for sustenance. Much of the time, this limited diet wasn’t enough to provide crewmembers the nutrition they needed for the journey ahead. This made pickle sellers like Vespucci indispensable during the golden age of exploration. Vespucci even supplied Christopher Columbus’s later voyages across the Atlantic with his briny goods. So while he wasn’t the world’s most important explorer, Vespucci’s pickles may have changed history by preventing untold bouts of scurvy.

And pickles weren’t just enjoyed by 15th century sailors. From ancient Mesopotamia to New York deli counters, they’ve played a vital role in the global culinary scene. But where do pickles come from? How did the cucumber become the standard-issue pickling vegetable in the States? And what exactly is a pickle, anyway?

What Pickles a Pickle

The verb “ to pickle” means to preserve something in a solution. That solution is often vinegar, which is, at its most basic, made of water and acetic acid. Most bacteria can’t flourish in highly acidic environments, so submerging a perishable food in vinegar helps create a sort of natural forcefield against the microbes that cause spoilage.

Another common pickling solution is brine, a.k.a. salty water. The brining method also relies on acid’s preserving properties, but the acid isn’t added by the pickle maker. It’s introduced by bacteria via a process called fermentation: Lactobacillus bacteria consume carbohydrates and excrete lactic acid, so if you leave a jar of vegetables in saltwater, those bacteria will eventually turn the briny solution into an acidic one.

Vegetables soaked in microbe excrement may sound unappetizing, but these bacteria and the acid they produce are perfectly safe to eat. They’re even beneficial. Lactic acid protects pickles from other, harmful organisms, while lactobacillus bacteria can boost the health of your gut’s micrbiome.

Cucumbers in a Pickle

Pickles of all kinds were a hit with the ancient world. It’s thought that the Ancient Mesopotamians were the first to enjoy some pickled dishes, and Herodotus noted the Ancient Egyptians ate fish preserved with brine. Columella proclaimed that “the use of vinegar and hard brine is very necessary they say, for the making of preserves.”

But when did cucumbers enter the briny equation? While loads of websites and books talk about ancient Mediterranean peoples enjoying pickled cucumbers, according to a 2012 paper in the Annals of Botany, it’s actually unclear when cucumbers arrived in the Mediterranean region. There are definitely early accounts that use words that people have translated as cucumber, but according to the paper, the texts in question are describing something more akin to snake melons. The evidence suggests it’s not until the medieval era that Europeans were able to enjoy a cucumber pickle with their sandwich, as cukes made their way to the West via two independent paths: “Overland from Persia into eastern and northern Europe,” before the Islamic conquests, and a later diffusion into western and southern Europe, which the paper’s authors peg to a primarily “maritime route from Persia or the Indian subcontinent into Andalusia” in the southern part of present-day Spain.

As the centuries progressed, pickles continued to win famous fans. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly enjoyed them, and William Shakespeare liked them enough to reference them numerous times in his work. He even helped build a new idiom around the word when he had The Tempest’s King Alonso ask the court jester Trinculo, “how camest thou in this pickle?” Merriam-Webster speculates that the Bard may have been playing off a Dutch expression that translates to something like “sit in the pickle,” though given Trinculo’s penchant for imbibing, the line may have also been a reference to the jester’s preferred method of preservation. In any case, being “in a pickle” is now widely understood to describe any difficult situation (and—as The Sandlot's Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez taught us—has a specific, related meaning in baseball, used when a runner is caught between two bases and is at risk of being tagged out).

Scottish doctor James Lind discussed how pickles could fight scurvy, noting how the “Dutch sailors are much less liable to the scurvy than the English, owing to this pickled vegetable carried out to sea.” The pickled vegetable in question was cabbage. And Captain James Cook was such a proponent of what he called Sour Krout that he gave his officers as much as they wanted, knowing that the crew would eat it as soon as they saw the officers liked it.

But not everyone was a fan. John Harvey Kellogg, who as we’ve previously discussed was deeply concerned about eating food with any known flavor, felt pickles were one of the "stimulating foods" that needed to be avoided.

The Big Dill With Pickle Brines

For most of pickling history, people have added spices and aromatics to their pickle brines. Ingredients like garlic, mustard seeds, cinnamon, and cloves all add flavor to pickles, but that’s not the only purpose they serve. These spices all have antimicrobial properties, which could partially explain why they were added to pickle recipes in the first place.

Dill, perhaps the ingredient most closely associated with pickles today, is also antimicrobial. The herb has been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, but it was hugely popular in Ancient Rome, where it spread alongside the Empire itself. Eventually, it found its way into Eastern European cuisine—and into pickling solutions. Pickles were already an important part of Eastern European diets: They provided a refreshing and nutritious contrast to the heavy, often-bland foods that were available in colder months, and it was customary for families to pickle barrels full of vegetables in the fall so they would have enough to last them through winter. Dill became a common ingredient in pickle brines.

When large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews immigrated from Eastern Europe to New York in the 19th and 20th centuries, they brought their pickle-making traditions with them. A classic kosher pickle is made with cucumbers fermented in a salt brine and flavored with garlic, dill, and spices. There are two main types of kosher pickles: crisp, bright-green half-sour pickles and the duller green full-sours. The only difference between the two varieties is that half-sours have a shorter fermentation time. (“Kosher pickles,” by the way, aren’t necessarily kosher. Early kosher pickles may have been made in accordance to Jewish law, but today the word is used to describe any pickles made in the traditional New York style.)

Initially, Jewish pickle-makers sold their products out of pushcarts to their immigrant neighbors. When Jewish-owned delis began popping up around New York City, pickles were a natural addition to plates of fatty lunch meat. And today, no matter where in the country you are, dill pickles and sandwiches are a common pairing.

The Origins of Bread and Butter Pickles

Some people prefer bread and butter pickles, which are made by adding something sweet to the pickling brine, like brown sugar or sugar syrup, and they generally omit the garlic that gives kosher pickles their distinctive flavor. But where does the name “bread and butter” come from?

It turns out it’s a bit hard to pin down the origin of the unusual pickle name. Some say it’s a holdover from the Great Depression, when families would eat simple sandwiches of bread, butter, and pickles. People may have done that, but if you’re looking for a written record, it seems that one of the first known uses of the term came when Omar and Cora Fanning registered to trademark the logo of their product, “Fanning’s Bread and Butter Pickles,” back in 1923. GFA Brands, which at one point owned the company that came to be known as Mrs Fannings, suggested that the “bread and butter” label came from a bartering system the Fannings once used. In this version of the story, the Fannings traded their delicious pickled cukes for groceries, including bread and butter.

The Pickle Goes Mainsteam

As pickles became more popular, American food companies hopped on the pickle-wagon. Heinz started selling them in the 1800s, and at the 1893 World’s Fair, H.J. Heinz lured visitors to his out-of-the-way booth by giving away free pickle pins. The promotion was so successful that the company featured a pickle in its logo for more than a century.

Heinz was the business to beat in the pickle industry until the 1970s. That’s when Vlasic launched an ad campaign featuring a cartoon stork who delivered pickles instead of babies. The advertising approach worked—it played on the belief that women crave pickles when they’re pregnant. At one point, Vlasic even adopted the slogan “the pickle pregnant women crave.”

And that’s only the tip of the strange spear of this pickle marketing story. A 1973 newspaper reports an ad of a husband telling his wife, “Sweetie, it’s time for your 4 o’clock pickle.” Even the stork angle was part of a bizarre extended Vlasic universe mythology wherein life had been good for storks during the baby boom in the United States. Once the boom ended, the stork had to find a new job, and wound up delivering Vlasic pickles.

Pickles From Around the Globe

It's not just cucumbers that get pickled—there are many notable pickles from around the world. In Korea, the pickle of choice is Kimchi. Like pickle, the word kimchi describes both a process and a food. Kimchied vegetables are traditionally salted, covered in a mixture of garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and fish sauce, and pickled in lactic acid via fermentation. Traditionally kimchi is made with cabbage, but any number of vegetables—including carrots, cucumbers, and radishes—can all be kimchi. The food is an integral part of Korean cuisine, and can be served with almost any meal. Some families even own dedicated kimchi fridges for storing their mixtures in the ideal environment for fermentation.

But kimchi isn’t the only fermented cabbage out there. Sauerkraut is a staple of many European cuisines. It’s cabbage that’s been preserved through lacto-fermentation, but unlike Kimchi, it doesn’t contain any seafood or bold spices. The name means “sour cabbage” in German, but the condiment might not have originated in Europe at all. Food historian Joyce Toomre suggests it originated in China, and according to legend, laborers building the Great Wall first made it by pickling shredded cabbage in rice wine. The dish allegedly traveled West by way of the Mongolian army in the 13th century.

A jar of pickled eggs used to be a common sight in English pubs and American dive bars. Preserved eggs and booze may seem like an odd pairing, but it actually makes perfect sense from a nutritional standpoint. Eggs are high in cysteine, an amino acid that your body uses to help keep your liver happy. That means bar patrons might have reached for a pickled egg to go with their ale for the same reason you crave a bacon egg and cheese sandwich when you’re hungover.

Another common non-vegetable pickle is pickled herring. In Poland and parts of Scandinavia, eating the preserved fish at the stroke of midnight on new year’s is thought to boost your good fortune in the year ahead. With the success all things pickled have had around the world, we can buy it.

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This post originally appeared on Mental Floss and was published September 3, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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