The History of This: Pickles

By Steven Arbuckle

We’ve all seen that person at the deli; the one who starts looking the instant the food hits the table. Moving the sandwich to one side to see the far side of the plate, lifting the corner of the paper to peer deeper into the edges of the basket, using a fork to push aside the fries or the slaw to make sure they can find it. Because it has to be there. It simply must.

Or maybe you’re the type that doesn’t want it. Maybe you shiver at its cold and glistening presence, or resent the little pool of goo that threatens to make a soppy mush of the beautifully toasted bread of your sandwich. Whatever the case, you probably know from experience that there’s almost always someone there that does want it. There’s someone willing to scoop it up and gobble it down, right off your plate every time. Because it’s there, every time. But why?

Humans first used fermentation toward the end of the Stone Age – more specifically, during the Neolithic Age, which happened 12000 – 4000 years ago (give or take a millennium or two). We have found evidence that people during that time were making alcoholic beverages in what we now call Asia, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Mexico. Without the benefit of refrigeration, the Neolithic diet would have been much more limited than ours, so the fact that pickled foods last longer would have made them very valuable. And without the benefit of cars and airplanes, travel would have been a much slower, longer affair, so being able to carry food without carrying a cooler was key to survival. Without microscopes and sterile laboratories, the discovery of fermentation far preceded the understanding of the process, so it’s not surprising to find it tied into belief systems — Baltic folklore tells of the god Rugutis, who is credited with making the mystery happen. And the importance of fermented foods lives on today in the Jewish and Christian faiths.

The science of fermentation is a study of molecular chains, represented by long and unwieldy strings of letters and numbers, and described by even longer and more unwieldy scientific terms. But when it comes to preserving foods, the point is simple: remove the things that make foods go bad the quickest. Many pickled foods begin with the introduction of salt to draw water out, and end with the food itself being made more acid, making them inhospitable to microbes and other agents of decay. And it seems that this acidification is what lands the pickle on your plate with such regularity.

Consider the sandwich. Breads, while they may be savory in some cases, are generally fairly plain. Cheese and mayonnaise bathe the tongue in yummy fats, but are usually more creamy than flavorful. Lettuce adds a crunch, but doesn’t exactly set the mouth on fire. And meats, often the star of the meal, by and large taste… well, meaty. The starches and fats are certainly pleasant, but can also coat the tongue and mask flavors. So the idea is that the pickle is there, waiting for you on the side, to bring a straight-up, unadulterated tang to the flavor profile, to reawaken the palate to the pleasures of the sandwich.

Alan Kaufman, owner of New York City’s The Pickle Guys, credits the Jewish immigrants of the early 1900’s with America’s pickle proliferation. Arriving in America, looking for a way to make it in a new culture, “they did what they knew how to do: they made pickles. It’s an inexpensive item to make; it’s an inexpensive item to buy.” It gives a new and vibrant culture a foothold in the melting pot, and it makes your sandwich that much more exciting. So, ummm, if you’re not gonna eat that…