By Anthony Orlando
Pickles are strange. Now, you better believe I can polish off a jar over the course of a Netflix marathon, but there’s no denying that pickles occupy their own odd little corner of the food spectrum. I remember having my first existential crisis at the age of 5 or 6 when I learned that pickles were in fact cucumbers at one point. But even now as a college-educated adult, I still couldn’t tell you exactly how you get from the garden salad ingredient to the bloody-mary garnish.
So, as Shakespeare asked, “How cam’st thou in this pickle?” That is the question.
It all started 4000 years ago, in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley region known as ancient Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq (if you recall from high school history class, this is also the place where writing, agriculture, and civilization itself is thought to have originated. Pretty cool.). It had already been discovered that drying and salting meat made for a delicious and spoilage resistant snack, when someone presumably had the idea that you could accomplish the same thing with fruits and vegetables by submerging them in brine. “Sounds good, but I’m still not sure how you get pickles from that, wouldn’t you just get a salty cucumber?” Good question, me. Pickles (and here I’m referring to just about any pickled item) certainly have a distinct look and flavor; kind of a salty, sour, vinegary taste. Where does all that come from? Well, nowadays all kinds of flavors are added with different vinegars, herbs, spices, and stuff like chili paste and ginger (which is how you get things like kimchi and its distinct, nose clearing zest). But when we’re talking about that certain, authentic, pickled taste, what we’re really talking about is lactic acid; a byproduct of fermentation. Ah yes, fermentation. The thing that makes extended family gatherings tolerable. That’s where pickles come from? I think I like this fermentation thing! Whatever it is… Well, when fruits or vegetables (or anything with a sufficient amount of sugars) are left alone in the right conditions, certain bacteria (things with names like Lactobacillus, or Paenbacillus) begin to multiply and, just like any other living thing, eat. And when these bacteria or yeasts eat something (like the aforementioned sugars found in fruits, vegetables, and barley malts) they produce byproducts like alcohol, carbon dioxide, and our secret ingredient, lactic acid (this is also the same process that makes past-date milk taste sour). In addition to the distinctive taste, the resulting acidic brine also acts as a highly effective preservative, killing off all the dangerous bacteria we’d rather not keep around. So there you have it; beer, wine and pickles are all made possible by yeast/bacteria poop. Brilliant!
Now, while pickling and fermentation go hand in hand, they aren’t necessarily one and the same. Really, all you need to enjoy your very own pickled whatever-you-want is a pot to boil water, spices, a jar, some vinegar, and a cool place to leave it overnight. Have a look at the overnight pickling recipe found in this issue, and try your luck in our March pickling contest. I mean, if an ancient Mesopotamian could do it, how hard can it be? If you can use an iPhone you can pickle a cucumber, for goodness sake.
So there you go. The idea of throwing back a jarful of Bubbies might make you feel a little weird, but it certainly shouldn’t make you feel guilty. On top of getting a generous serving of probiotics, you could also accurately say that you’re participating in one of humanity’s greatest traditions. Just remind yourself that Aristotle ate pickles too, as you stir up your next Sunday morning cocktail.