Pickling is so hot it's cool.
Once a necessity to feed a family through the winter, pickling -- using vinegar or lemon juice to "cook" or preserve food and inhibit bacterial growth -- has become a nostalgic hobby for people who see it as a reminder of simpler times and an outlet for culinary creativity. Even chefs have embraced pickling to add pungent flavors to their trademark dishes.
"People are literally begging for a good homemade pickle, a bread and butter pickle, a sweet pickle, a sour pickle. And you can't have enough dill pickles," says Lillie Crowley who oversees fair canning competitions.
"It's such a wonderful memory and recollection, it's almost so emotional with some people," says Crowley, who taught her 14 children the basics of canning. "They remember how good they were (back in the homemade days) and the people who made them."
Once thought to be a skill only grandmothers, aunts and neighbor women could master, pickling is becoming a hobby for men, too. Many men have treasured childhood memories of home-canned foods, she says, and when they win ribbons for their efforts, they're thrilled. Crowley is herself a blue-ribbon winner who began competing at the fair during the 1950s.
When pickles fail to pass muster with the judges, Crowley checks the cook's chemistry. Did they use 9 percent vinegar? Did they use canning salt? (Ingredients are important. Ordinary cooking vinegar is only about 5 percent acidity, and table salt contains additives that will cloud pickling solutions and distort flavors.) Finally, she tells them that competition is stiff these days, just keep after it.
Nearly 28 million people in the United States pickle each year, according to a survey conducted by Alltrista Consumer Products Co., the marketer of Ball and Kerr home canning jars.
Everyone, it seems, is trying to make a better pickle, and newer recipes and quicker "counter-top" preparation methods take much of the fear out of the experience, Crowley said.
At the fair, she demonstrates an easy recipe, ready to eat in 24 hours and good for about a week in the refrigerator. (The same recipe can be used with a water-bath process, commonly known as "canning," to preserve food for longer-term pantry storage and to kill the bacterium known as Clostridium botulinum, which can cause a potentially fatal form of food poisoning called botulism.)
Chef Stephen Pyles understands the need for a quicker pickle. His Star Canyon restaurant prepares at least 12 varieties of pickled vegetables weekly for its relish trays, sandwiches and dishes. In "The New Texas Cuisine" (Doubleday, $35), his rendition of pickled onions is meant to be served the day it is made.
"Today, we wouldn't pickle or preserve something because we need to keep it for six months," Pyles says. "Our pickles are gone in three days. They're never even in a jar or a can."
Just as food preparation changes over time, so has the art of pickling.
"What I'm seeing is, in Mexican cooking, there's something called 'escabeche,' and that is nothing but pickling," says Pyles, who is writing a Southwestern vegetarian cookbook that includes a chapter on pickling.
"So with the advent of Nuevo Latino and all things Hispanic coming into our culture by way of South America and the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, we're starting to see things like dried chilies in 'escabeche,' which are just pickled dried chilies, jicama, radishes. Those kinds of pickles are becoming more prevalent."
Chef Frank Stitt pickles vegetables a few times a week but also will throw a "pickling party" to capture and preserve summer vegetables to serve at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Stitt grew up in the farming town of Cullman, Ala., where his grandmother and mother had cellars for storing pickled peaches and beets. He has incorporated pickled vegetables, especially okra, into his repertoire of down-home Southern ingredients cooked in the French Provencal style.
Restaurants also are taking a lead in the Italian tradition of packing pickled vegetables in colorful arrangements, such as layers of mushrooms, pearl onions and artichokes, he says.
"Some are trying to can their own tomatoes at the height of their season to use later," Stitt says. "I think that's a trend that better restaurants and chefs are doing because it just makes sense in using seasonal ingredients."
Whether he's wielding a 4-inch paring knife on cucumbers or a 10-inch chef's knife on Vidalia onions, Stitt always places the results in old-fashioned ceramic bowls, a nod to the French way of being "more sympathetic, kinder, more gentle when you macerate," he says.
No fear pickling
An important part of pickling -- especially heat-processing -- is understanding how to prevent bacteria from growing in various foods.
No single heat-processing method ensures safety for all types of foods, says Dr. Judy Harrison of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.