Pickles may not be the most glamorous of foods, but the brined cucumber gets a whole week of celebration. Started in 1948 by the Pickle Packers International (yes, that’s a real trade association), International Pickle Week celebrates all things pickle - from Dillsburg, Pennsylvania Picklefest to a pickle juice drinking contest in Atkins, Arkansas. In order to properly prepare for your own puckered pageant, here’s the pickled history of the pickle.
Historians suspect that “pickling” of food has been around at least as long as humans have realized the benefits of preserving it. By definition, “pickling” means bathing food in a salt brine or vinegar solution to preserve it. While the word “pickle” only dates back about 600 years (originating from the 15th century Dutch “pekel” meaning “brine”), archaeologists believe that this preservation method began in ancient Mesopotamia about 4300 years ago. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the first pickled foods may have been in bathed in old wine or beer that slowly fermented.
As for pickles themselves, cucumbers (which are, of course, the pre-pickled pickle) are native to India and were domesticated about three thousand years ago - meaning pickling is older than the cucumber. By way of trade, cucumbers made their way to other ancient civilizations, including Egypt where they were eaten by both royalty and slaves. It’s even mentioned in the Old Testament, saying, “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely/the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.” There’s the legend that Cleopatra claimed that eating pickles was the secret to her beauty. This was so widely believed that Julius Caesar, Cleopatra’s lover and the father of her child, gave pickles to his Roman troops thinking they would make them stronger. It was also around this time that dill found its way into both Egyptian and Roman diets and soon, on to a pickle.
By the Middle Ages, pickles had come to Europe and quickly became a universally beloved. Queen Elizabeth loved them and so did Shakespeare, who many credit for inventing the phrase “in a pickle” in The Tempest (though, that may be more legend than truth). During the “Age of Exploration” in the 15th and 16th centuries, ships crossing the Atlantic stocked up on pickles. This was because they spoiled slowly and cucumbers have vitamin C, preventing the always-problematic scurvy. There’s a story that, prior to having continents named for him, Amerigo Vespucci was a “pickle peddler” in Spain. In charge of stocking ships with goods and supplies before their trips, Vespucci supposedly filled Columbus’ ships with pickles before he took off in 1492. A decade later, Vespucci took an adventure of his own and landed in what later would be known as South America.
Thanks to Vespucci and Columbus (who also planted cucumbers in Haiti as a food source), pickles were here to stay in the Americas. In the 17th century, Dutch cucumber farms dotted what is today Brooklyn, as well as near the tobacco fields of Virginia. They were part of a routine Colonial America diet. Though Thomas Jefferson may never have said “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle,” he certainly did eat them.
In the 19th century, people from across Europe came upon the shores of America to escape persecution and look for a better life. With them, came their own version of the pickle - the kosher dill. In particular, Jewish immigrants popularized this new pickle by piling cucumbers into large wooden barrels along with dill, garlic, spices, kosher salt and water. Then, the cucumbers were left to ferment for a longer period of time than normal, usually over a month. The result was a sharper and more sour pickle that became a street snack, sold in pushcarts through tenement districts.
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Through the 19th century, modern inventions further popularized the pickle. In 1851, James Young invented paraffin wax which better sealed cans and helped prevent the spread of botulism. A few years later, John Mason introduced a heavier jar that could better withstand the high heats needed to pickle.
Today, Americans eat over 2.5 billion pounds of pickles a year. Besides being a perfect crunchy side item to a corned beef sandwich, there actually may be health benefits to pickles. According to the New York Times, there’s speculation that the vinegar and salt found in pickle juice may prevent cramping in athletes. Perhaps Julius Caesar was onto something by feeding his soldiers pickles before battles.