Guest post by Emily Burrows, a food preserver and Pickle Contest judge.
Pickling is an ancient art grown out of necessity: the need to preserve the harvest, the fundamental need to maintain nourishment throughout the year.
Before the days of iceboxes, when options for storing food were limited, people pickled. Before the days of canning–the practice of which only dates to the late 18th century at the earliest–people pickled. Pickles are mentioned in the works of Shakespeare and in the bible. Pickles crossed the lips of Cleopatra and graced the tables of all pharaohs before her. Pickles even appear in the archaeological record of Mesopotamia.
The first pickle was almost certainly inadvertent. We can imagine a cave-dweller digging a hole, lining it with leaves, and tucking away a stash of foraged vegetables or fruits. Over a period of days, or longer, the food would have undergone the natural process of anaerobic fermentation (the breakdown of sugars into lactic acid by bacteria). This process would have bathed the food in a sour-tasting, low pH solution, which would have discouraged the growth of harmful bacteria, and preserved the food.
And tada! Our cave-dweller had pickles!
It is worth mentioning that this anaerobic fermentation is also responsible for the creation of two other essential food groups–cheese and alcohol–so if our cave-dweller didn’t find pickles in his leaf-lined stash, he found one of those other hors d’oeuvres. It was quite a party back in the Neolithic era!
Throughout the centuries, early man began to vary his pickle recipe. Through trial and error he learned to use different leaves to line his earthen pits, or throw in twigs or berries, figuring out that some ingredients–such as garlic, cinnamon, and cloves–had preservative powers. Eventually certain recipes became tradition, bestowing upon pickles saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness, or spice.
Today, pickling is a phenomenal and creative art to explore. Stray a little further than the common dill and you have capers and kimchi, eggs, sauerkraut, watermelon rinds, spicy Indian lemons and limes, sardines and anchovies, shoots and roots and artichoke hearts! And we mustn’t forget the pickled pigs feet, ears, and assorted organ meats to finish off our pickle panoply.
And pickling is safe and simple. It’s easy enough to follow guidelines for fermented pickles (like Alton Brown’s recipe for sour dill pickles) or you can simply create a flavored brine with spices, vinegar or citrus juice, and salt. Any brine or marinade with a pH of 4.6 is pickle-friendly.
Many people pack their pickles in glass mason jars and process them in a water bath canner, which is a phenomenal way to have shelf-stable pickles all year round. But you mustn’t forget the refrigerator pickle, too, which can live happily in your icebox for weeks on end.
Intrigued by the history and art of the pickle? Come on out to DC State Fair on Saturday to see the city’s finest! The winners of this year’s DC State Fair Pickle Contest will be showered with glory, fame, ribbons, cash prizes, and gift cards to Fair sponsor Annie’s Ace Hardware, in Petworth!