Spoofed on TV: It’s a sure sign that pickles have crossed from alternative to mainstream.
The oft-brilliant sketch comedians of Portlandia love to give a ribbing to studiously trendy foods. They skewered the pretensions of mixology with a cocktail of ginger-based bourbon infused with ingredients like charred ice, egg shells, bitters, and rotten banana; ‘green’ carnivores brought us Colin, a restaurant chicken dish served with his local, free-range, heritage breed, woodland-raised pedigree; and the Allergy-Pride Parade celebrated a lactose- and wheat-free world. Now we have the overzealous briners of We Can Pickle That! who enthusiastically pickle and eat all manner of brined matter. “Too many eggs? We can pickle that! Dropped your ice cream cone? We can pickle that! Broke a heel on your shoe? We can pickle that!” Before the opening credits had rolled for the latest Portlandia season, they had pickled an old CD jewel box case, Band-Aids, a parking ticket, and a dead bird.
Can you call a process that’s been with us for thousands of years a trend?
Pickling began as a food preservation technique in ancient Mesopotamia. It’s now practiced globally in a multitude of forms: Indian chutneys, Irish corned beef, herring in Scandinavia, Germany’s sauerkraut, Chinese duck eggs, and Korean kimchi are all regional adaptations of the culinary art. Here in the U.S. the cucumber is king, and the average American eats 8½ pickled pounds of them a year: sweet pickles in the South, where you can get them brined in Kool-Aid; bread-and-butter slices in the Midwest; refrigerated for Northeasterners; and kosher dills for everyone.
What’s new is the way pickles are being reinvented in every color, shape, size, and texture. Chefs are experimenting with everything from apples to sea beans in brines both sweet and savory. They’re adding them to salads, soufflés, seafood, and desserts, and even giving them center stage with entire pickle plates.
The new pickle renaissance was disconcerting to top pickle-maker Vlasic.
As supermarket pickles go, they hold their own with a nice vinegar zip, a touch of peppery heat, and their famous crunch, but with an ingredient list that’s as much laboratory as grandma’s kitchen and an alarmingly fluorescent yellow hue (thank you, Artificial Yellow #5), they were turning off the new breed of pickle buyer. Vlasic recently introduced its new ‘artisanal’ pickle line to compete with jarred upstarts like McClure’s and Brooklyn Brine. Farmer’s Garden™ by Vlasic® eschews Mexican imports for most of the year using Michigan cucumbers in season, and adds whole garlic cloves, pepper strips, whole peppercorns, and carrot slices. With no artificial coloring, they look less like Mountain Dew than Vlasic’s traditional varieties, and you can buy them at Walmart for about half the price of their trendy competitors’ pickles. Indeed, the pickle renaissance has gone mainstream.