For thousands of years food preservation has relied on a few methods for making harvested foods last through the winter or even making some foods more palatable. There are five basic preservation methods: Sun drying - fruits, vegetables, herbs, meat and fish. Salting and smoking meat, fish, seafood and vegetables. Fermenting - using yeast to preserve grains, milk and fruits. Pickling - using salt brine or vinegar to preserve fruit, vegetables and even meat and fish. Sugaring - covering nuts, spices and fruits with honey or cane sugar.
Pickling has been a part of food preservation since the beginning of human history. Some of the earliest methods of pickling were seen in Mesopotamia and used in every culture around the world. In the Ancient World Cleopatra was fond of pickled fruits because she felt they made her beautiful. Roman armies would be given pickled foods to help energize them for long marches. Pickled fish and melons were preferred in Eqypt. Pickled olives, lemons and artichokes were preferred along northern Mediterranean areas and radishes, cabbage, bitter melons and mushrooms in Asia.1
The word “pickle” comes from the Dutch word “pekel” which means brine and is the first step for pickling. Fresh vegetables, fruit, meat or fish would be submerged in salt brine for a few days to extract moisture. The open barrels would be put out in the sun, the UV rays of the sun helping to kill harmful bacteria. Most receipts about pickling use one technique for telling when the brine is salty enough, “mix it(salt) well with water till an egg swims with its top just above the water.”2 In the 17th century flavoring the brine with spices such as pepper, dill, coriander and ginger improved the taste of new foreign fruits and vegetables that were starting to come into Europe from Asian and New World markets. One newer vegetable to Europe synonymous with pickling was the cucumber. Cucumbers came from India. The raw form of cucumbers went in and out of favor in Europe. In the 18th century they were considered poisonous in England. They were called cowcumbers because they were seen as fit only for cows. 3
Early explorers were taking pickled vegetables onboard ships when they traveled to help prevent scurvy. The merchant hired to stock Christopher Columbus’ ships was Amerigo Vespucci, a pickle merchant. Columbus brought cucumber seeds to Haiti and planted them to provide a food source for other ships and sailors coming to the New World.4 In the Netherlands one of the favorites in the pickle family was pickled herring. From their location on the North Sea, pickled herring has become a national dish, served with sour pickled cucumbers. Dutch sailors were considered to be very healthy during the 16th and 17th centuries because of the availability of pickled herring and zuurkool “pickled cabbage” which was brought on the long journey to Asia. The settlement of Cape Town on the Cape of Good Hope in Africa was established for farmers to restock the supply of cabbage onboard the Dutch East India ships.6 When the Dutch came to New Netherland they brought many seeds of vegetables and fruits from Europe. Dutch farmers in Breukelen were known for growing cucumbers and taking them to New Amsterdam to be pickled and sold. A large pickling industry grew up in New Amsterdam.
Everything changed for preservation and pickling in the 19th century. A few new inventions helped bring canning to popularity and changed the use of the salt brine. In 1851 a Scottish chemist invented the use of paraffin wax in the process of preservation making it much easier to store foods in airtight containers. In 1858 the patent of the Mason jar created heavier jars for use in home preservation so the jar can be boiled to seal and sterilize. Tin cans made food preservation much more mechanized and handled by large factories and sold in stores. As store bought food gained in popularity, refridgerators preserved our foods and people left farm life, the ideas of food preservation became less of a necessity and more of a fun activity for the fall.
By the late 19th and early 20th century pickle carts were purchased cheaply by immigrants in New York City and pickled cucumbers sold more as a quick snack. New immigrants could make money quickly and invest in more carts or even in a storefront after a period of time. Essex St. in the Lower East Side of Manhattan became known as “pickle alley” because of the large amount of pickle sellers. 5 During times of economic hardship, like the 1930’s, pushcarts were not just for immigrants but for those trying to sell anything to make money. A variety of immigrant foods became popular or just hot foods for people on the go. The idea of street food vendors becomes a way of life in New York City. In the mid to late 20th century lawmakers were trying to “clean up the streets” by moving push carts and open air vendors to one location or indoor market areas where they would have to pay rent for a stall or space. This was not a popular idea for vendors or for customers and never caught on.
The resurgence of the “craft pickle” in the 21st century has much to do with this Lower East Side pickle vendor tradition. The health benefits and also the wide variety of pickled foods from around the world are making this a flourishing new enterprise. The health benefits include the bacteria that is produced during the fermentation process which produces vitamins and the salting brine causes the vitamins, especially vitamin C, to become more concentrated, transforming some inedible foods into delicious healthful ones. The bacteria in pickles inhibit the growth of harmful microbes in the intestines. They help absorb iron better and research shows that vinegar can help with weight loss.
Besides the favorite dill pickle from Eastern Europe, other flavors of pickled cucumbers are being tried including sweet, sour, salty, hot or all of the above. Pickles can be made with cauliflower, radishes, onions, green beans, asparagus and a seemingly endless variety of other vegetables and fruits. When the English arrived in the New World, they had brought their method for creating sweet pickles with vinegar, sugar and spiced syrup. Germans and Eastern Europeans introduced various forms of lacto-fermented cabbage like sauerkraut. The French serve tiny, spiced cornichons with heavy pâtés and pungent cheeses. In the Middle East pickles are served with every meal, from peppers to olives to lemons. Russians pickle tomatoes, among other things. Koreans have their kimchi, the Japanese pickle plums and daikon, and Italians pickle eggplants and peppers. Each area of the world has its own beloved variety of pickle.7
1 www.nyfoodmuseum.org “Pickle History Timeline.”
2 ed. Keller, Jane Carpenter, Eleen Miller and Paul Stambach. “On the Score of Hospitality, Selected Receipts of a Van Rensselaer Family. Albany, New York 1785-1835.” Historic Cherry Hill: Albany, NY. 1986.
3 www.history.com “Pickles throughout History.”
4 www.exploratorium.edu “Fascinating Pickle Facts.”
5 www.nyfoodmuseum.org “From the Brine: Pickles in New York.”