The pickling process has been around since ancient times and the benefits of preserving fruits and vegetables in brine has long been a common thread among cultures. The pickle has been noted in Cleopatra’s beauty regime, Shakespeare’s plays, Amerigo Vespucci’s memoirs, and countless Brooklyn-based hipster food blogs. From ancient to modern, East to West, highbrow to lowbrow, the pickle and its corresponding curing process has established itself as a cultural icon.
Although much of the history of pickles relies heavily on the trajectory of the cucumber, pickling is not exclusive to that vegetable. There is pickled herring in Eastern Europe and Nordic regions; German sauerkraut, which actually originated in China to feed those building the Great Wall; mango achar from Southern India (not to be confused with the spicy chili pickles from Telangana); Italian and Chicago-style giardiniera; Japanese tsukemono; and, of course, Korean kimchi. Within these delicacies exist hundreds of subcategories and region-specific flavour profiles. The vast variety of things that can be pickled, from the pleasant to the pungent, touches almost every continent.
The cultural significance of pickles is therefore felt by many. Pickles represent a time where food technologies were primitive, but cooks’ ingenuity was abundant. By fermenting foods and preserving them, people from all over the world could bridge the gaps between crop harvests. Today, there are pickle-themed festivals throughout North America, “pickleback” shots served at the hippest bars, professional athletes drinking pickle brine to improve their performance, pickle ornaments hanging on Christmas trees, the occasional reference to “I Have Two Pickles” from The Little Rascals, and “in a pickle” is tossed around colloquially.
Pickles also span the culinary spectrum. They are undoubtedly utilitarian, but can also be elevated to the level of haute cuisine or reduced to novelty. The various articles written, festivals and contests held, and hokey supermarket gimmicks surrounding the seemingly simple snack attest to this. More importantly, however, pickles are a symbol of authenticity and familial lineage. Walk into any Mediterranean restaurant that wishes to uphold the illusion that a nonna is in the back cooking, and you’ll likely see jars of olives, pickled vegetables, and other Old World mainstays lining the walls. Walk into the home of most first-generation immigrant families, from both European and Asian backgrounds, and there’s a good chance you’ll find the same. Pickles are a symbol of generational movement, of families cooking together and passing on traditions. Although cooking without fire and the need to preserve foods emerged out of necessity, the art and science of pickling continues to permeate cultures and countries alike.