Picking out your prized pickle

Ornament shines in holiday custom

December 24, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Feel fickle about pickles? Join the club. Even among its fans, this fermented vegetable inspires only limited enthusiasm. Those who are crazy about pickles seem, well, a little crazy.

On the contrary, for most people pickles float in the briny deep, unthought of and unloved. When fished forth, they're usually slapped down on a deli platter next to a sandwich as the (uneaten) garnish. Even common speech reviles them. First coined by Shakespeare in his play, The Tempest, the phrase in a pickle means trouble's afoot. Of more recent locution, when we say someone is pickled, it means he's drunk.

Ah, but come tomorrow, the humble pickle will enjoy a tremendous reversal of fortune. In many houses - especially those of German heritage - pickles (or, more accurately, their blown-glass facsimile) will have pride of place as an ornament carefully hung on a bough of the family Christmas tree.

After being led forth with eyes closed, children will anxiously flit their gaze across the tree's branches in hopes of being the first to spy this hidden treasure. For tradition holds that a treat must be given to whoever is observant enough to find the "Christmas pickle."

John Hepp, manager of the Christmas Dove, a shop in the Inner Harbor's Pratt Street Pavilion, suggests that this quaint custom is steadily growing in popularity. The Christmas pickle is not only one of his shop's better-selling tree ornaments, he said, but it evokes passionate reactions among his customers.

"People all have their own funny and unique stories about it. Some say that the child who finds it gets to open his presents first. Others give a cash prize," Hepp said. "My girlfriend, for instance, says she is cursed. In her house, the one who finds the pickle ornament gets $10, but it's always her sister who sees it before she does."

While the derivation of many beloved holiday traditions is obscure - why exactly do we dye Easter eggs or carve jack-o'-lanterns? - the Christmas pickle's story is especially difficult to pin down.

"I know it's a German tradition, but not too much more than that," said Sue Latini, a food historian in Baltimore and author of At the Hearth: Early American Recipes (Noble House, 1995).

"It probably has something to do with Amish friendship rites," said William Woys Weaver, a contributing editor to Gourmet and author of 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From (Algonquin Books, 2000, $18.95).

Other experts suggest that the Christmas pickle derives from a medieval folk tale. As the story goes, two boys were traveling home from school to be with their families on Christmas Eve. Weary from their journey, they stopped at a roadside inn to refresh themselves. The innkeeper, however, was an evil man. He robbed the two young students, and then drowned them in a pickle barrel to hide his crime.

But St. Nicholas came to the rescue. It just so happened that Santa stopped by the same inn shortly thereafter, and discovered the two students. He tapped the barrel with his staff, and the boys were magically restored to life. After thanking Santa for his help, the boys continued on their journey home.

Like many fairy tales, this one is a perplexing blend of carnage and candied sentiment. Lurking in the subtext, of course, is that the two boys are students. Would Santa have bothered to save them had they been dropouts, or overly prone to playing hooky? The moral of the story, little ones, is that good boys and girls get their education. Fine. But why a pickle barrel?

A brief consideration of culinary history may shed some light here. Long before refrigeration, canning or the bottling of foods, humanity labored to preserve a means of sustenance. Those in tropical climates worried over how to prevent food from rotting in the sun; other locales struggled to store sufficient food supplies through the long winter months when nothing could grow.

Drying meat, rubbing it with salt or spices was an earlier innovation, while the discovery that vegetables could be preserved in a salty fluid, or pickled, was probably discovered in the second century B.C.

Around this same time, cucumbers, the basis for pickles, were imported from Northern India into the fertile Tigris Valley. Cucumbers are mentioned at least twice in the Bible (Numbers 11:5 and Isaiah 1:8), and Julius Caesar thought pickles had an energizing effect, so he had them fed to his troops.

Eventually, cucumber seeds were planted all over Europe, Asia and the United States. In fact, Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is named, was in some sense a pickle peddler. That's because before Vespucci became an explorer on Spanish ships, he was a chandler, meaning a purveyor of goods to be consumed while at sea. One of his most popular items was pickles. The wooden barrels made them easily stowed and pickles contain vitamin C, which helped prevent sailors from getting scurvy.

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