Pickle-lovers eat 'em all, the sour with the sweet

January 03, 1993|By Steve Knopper | Steve Knopper,Knight-Ridder News Service

My friends think I'm weird because I consistently instruct waiters and waitresses to smother my sandwiches with pickles. No matter how many times I try to explain -- on a ham sandwich, the dills' crunch offsets the soft meat, the sourness offsets the blandness, the wetness offsets the dryness -- my friends still look at me funny. All this time, I thought it was me.

But, upon researching this story, I now realize it's the pickles that make everybody act a little strange. "You're doing a story on what?" a snooty waitress at a local diner wanted to know. "On pickles? Well, I don't think that's very interesting.

"We only have sliced pickles," she added. "We don't have the interesting phallic-shaped pickles. Hey, Danny! Do you have any good pickle stories?"

"No," responded a nearby waiter. "But I got a good rutabaga story."

See what I mean? Questions about pickles turn into opening lines.

It's all part of the pickle mystique. Something about the green, lumpy, garlicky, vinegary offspring of cucumbers tends to fascinate people.

"Pickle obsessives" are like the man who, recalls Boulder, Colo., Burger King production leader Carol Blackburn, always ordered a coffee cup full of sliced dills to pile on his chicken sandwich. "Pickle pundits" interpret them in all sorts of ways. The rock band Skankin' Pickle, for example, finds the whole concept oddly hilarious. The moviemakers who cast a pickle salesman in the starring "Crossing Delancey" role elevated a pickle into a moving symbol for Old-World integrity and humility.

However they're interpreted, though, pickles are big business. According to publicists at Vlasic Foods Inc., every American eats nine pounds of pickles a year.

Unsurprisingly, national pickle distributors list deli-heavy cities like Chicago and New York City -- where restaurants serve pickles in barrels or as free appetizers before meals -- as their top markets. Vlasic publicists say the dill spear and the bread-and-butter pickles are the most popular selling brands.

In New York, "People are very serious about their pickles," says Jody Rodger, general manager of Boulder,Colo.'s, New York Deli. "Here, you give people a pickle, and they don't know if they're half-sour or whole-sour."

Thirty-six different genres and sub-genres of cucumbers roost on supermarket shelves -- Vlasic, for example, sells nine different kinds -- but they all descend from three basic types. Publicists for Pickle Packers International in St. Charles, Ill., list these:

* Fresh pack pickles come from cucumbers smooshed into a container and covered with a vinegar-laden solution. These are the kind supermarkets usually sell on the shelves.

* Refrigerated pickles are basically the same thing, but they're immediately refrigerated after packing. They end up slightly more crisp and look and taste more like cucumbers. Delis usually sell these kind over the counter, and amateur pickle makers usually make these at home -- but supermarkets sell them in jars, too.

* Processed pickles are cucumbers that hit the assembly line. Packers put the cucumbers in large tanks with a salt solution and ferment them for three months or more. (The process is often called curing or preserving.) They're heat-treated, and they have a sharper flavor. Because they can sit for years without refrigeration, they often wind up served at fast-food restaurants, or in jars as halves, spears, chips, relish and salad cubes.

Pickle publicists, of course, emphasize nutrition. A large dill pickle contains less than a gram of fat and just 11 calories; pickles are laden with Vitamin C, calcium and carbohydrates. However, publicists don't play up the huge amount of salt -- 1,428 milligrams in a genuine dill -- that come with the territory.

Because pickles' flavors vary wildly -- from the excruciatingly sour cornichons to the more popular dills and bread-and-butter slices -- devotees' uses for pickles often dip into the experimental.

My mother says I like pickles so much because my great-grandfather used to drink an occasional cup of raw pickle brine. Linda Parente, who handles the catering and deli services at Ideal Market in Boulder, said a kitchen employee likes taking a bite of chocolate, then a bite of pickle to balance the sweet with the sour. She often served them to her children wrapped in a napkin for chewing practice while teething.

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