According to archaeologists and anthropologists, the ancient Mesopotamians were pickling cucumbers, originally native to India, by 2400 BC. Aristotle praised the healing powers of pickled cucumbers, and the Roman emperors, including Julius Caesar, fed pickles to soldiers in the belief that they improved mental and physical strength. Cleopatra attributed her beauty to the pickles in her diet.
Pickles have been a part of the Western European diet at least since the Middle Ages. Queen Elizabeth I’s chefs reported her appetite for pickles, and Shakespeare not only refers to pickles, but repeatedly uses the word as a metaphor (“Oh, Hamlet, how camest thou in such a pickle?” Act 5, scene 1). The English word pickle derives from the Dutch pekel, meaning brine. The Dutch have a saying, also borrowed by the English, that a person caught in a troublesome predicament, in de pekel zitten (sits in pickle brine). In America we say we’re in a pretty pickle.
Before Amerigo Vespucci set sail to discover his namesake in the New World, he was a pickle merchant. His ships were stocked with pickled vegetables to protect his sailors from scurvy, a disease caused by the lack of vitamin C from fresh fruits and vegetables on long voyages. Pickles also were stocked in the holds of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and Christopher Columbus made stopovers in Haiti where he grew cucumbers for pickling purposes.
By the 16th century, the area that is now New York City was home to a large concentration of commercial picklers. Dutch farmers grew cucumbers in what is now Brooklyn and sold them to Manhattan dealers who cured them and sold them in market stalls on Washington, Canal and Fulton Streets. Pickles also were produced at home and commercially in the American south. Thomas Jefferson noted that “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.”
Napoleon was so convinced of the value of pickles to his armies that he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to anyone who could devise a better way to pickle and preserve food for his troops. In 1806 the winner, a confectioner named Nicholas Appert, proposed that if you put food in an airtight container (no microorganisms could enter) and then boiled it (any existing microorganisms would be dispatched), food could be safely stored for longer periods. His discovery was one of the most significant in culinary history.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans today consume 5,200,000 pounds of pickles annually, the equivalent of nine pounds per person. In the United States, pickled beets, cucumbers, olives and sauerkraut are popular. There are, however, regional favorites: In Chicago, with a large Italian American community, giardiniera, combination of pickled carrots, cauliflower, celery, and peppers, is served with beef sandwiches; pickled herring is common among Scandinavians in Minnesota; chowchow and beet pickled eggs are Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies; and Southerners pickle okra, shrimp, watermelon rind and pigs feet.
Pickles also are deep-fried in the South, and Kool Aid pickles (koolickles) are a popular child’s treat (For those unfamiliar with these sweet and tart products of the Delta region of Mississippi, here’s how they’re made. Buy a one gallon jar of dill pickles from your favorite grocery, cut them in half lengthwise and put them in a large airtight canning jar with their brine, 1 pound of white sugar and two packets of the Ko0lAid flavor of your choice — something red is typical. Mix well, close the jar and store it in your refrigerator for a week. The result with be a neon red sweet and sour snack like no other.)
The pickling process can preserve perishable foods for months, an attribute that not only benefits long voyages, but that extends out-of-season use of vegetables at home. If the food contains sufficient moisture, a pickling brine may be produced simply by adding dry salt. German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi, for example, are produced by using salt to draw excess water from vegetables, and allowing natural fermentation at room temperature to produce the required acidity. Other pickles are made by submerging vegetables in a vinegar solution which often includes antimicrobial herbs and spices, such as mustard seed, garlic, cinnamon or cloves.
Preservation alone, however, cannot account for world-wide pickle popularity; people enjoy how pickles taste. And, according to some researchers, pickling can improve the nutritional value of vegetables, since the bacteria involved in fermentation produce vitamins. Korean scientists suggest that kimchi contains double the levels of vitamins B1, B2, B12 and niacin as unfermented cabbage.
Most of the recipes that follow are for quick, or refrigerator, pickles. Made in small quantities, stored in the refrigerator and eaten soon after they are made, these pickles are not canned and sealed in large quantities for long term cellar storage. But even if you are planning to refrigerate your pickles, it’s a good idea to store them in sterilized jars with tight lids. While some experts argue that a run through a hot dishwasher is adequate sterilization, most recommend that the empty, open jars be submerged in boiling water for ten minutes before filling. Remove the jars from the boiling water with tongs, fill them while hot with your pickles and brine, leaving about a half an inch head space, and secure the lids firmly. Refrigerate and eat the contents within the time period recommended by the individual recipes. If you detect any signs of spoilage (mold, leakage, bulging lids, unnatural color) discard the pickles immediately.