From Cleopatra to ‘Pickle Pits:’ Pickle Facts and Fun

We’ve started to see cucumbers in the local farmers’ market stalls this last week or two, and that reminds us that pickling season has begun.

In addition to sampling some easy-to-make Spicy Jalapeño Pickles this weekend, it seemed like a good time to review some little-known (and sometimes downright silly) pickle facts:

Pickle-wikipediaFor the Bible tells us so. Pickling is an ancient art. More than a millenium before mentions of pickles turned up in the Christian Bible (Numbers 11:5 and Isaiah 1:8, for those keeping score at home), cucumbers brought from India (their native habitat), were used for making pickles in ancient Mesopotamia.

Cleopatra_and_Caesar_by_Jean-Leon-GeromeBeauty secrets — of the pickle. More than just a way to preserve a surplus harvest for off-season consumption, or to feed hungry people on long journeys, pickles were also thought to make a person strong and beautiful. Supposedly, Cleopatra attributed her good looks to the pickles in her diet, and Julius Caesar and other Roman emperors fed their soldiers pickles to “make them strong.”

Here’s a shocking pickle truth: A “kosher” dill pickle is not necessarily kosher! A kosher pickle is one made Jewish New York City pickle makers, with a natural Kosher Saltdill leaf-and-garlic brine. But, Jewish traditions aside, this kind of pickle is called kosher because of the use of that kind of salt — not because it’s made in accordance with Jewish dietary law. Another fun fact: kosher dills have been served in New York since at least 1899.


pickled-veg-and-cucumberCan you imagine? Speaking of which, it’s hard to think of our grandmothers’ homemade cucumber pickles not being fermented with generous amounts of dill, but the fern-like herb was first brought to Western Europe from its native Sumatra around A.D. 900. Drawing from the culinary traditions of (sort of) nearby Mesopotamia, the ancient Greeks and Romans used dill for their pickles several centuries earlier.

Show me your pickle pit. According to the Mental Floss website, Pacific Islanders store pickled foods in literal holes in the ground that are lined with banana leaves. The preserved food comes in handy in case of tropical storms. Culturally, pickle reserves are so valuable that they are part of the courting process, “helping a man prove he’ll be able to provide for a woman.” Mental Floss says, “[i]n Fiji, guys can’t get a girl without first showing her parents his pickle pits.”

hot-spicy-picklesThat’sa lotta pickles. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American eats 8.5 lbs of pickles a year. One-third of our pickled cucumber consumption (so almost 3 lbs) comes from fast foods. Garnished with one or two little slices at a time, that’s a lot of pickle-topped burgers and sandwiches.

You say pekel, I say pickle. The term pickle is derived from the Dutch word pekel, meaning brine. In the English-speaking countries of U.S. and Canada, and to a lesser degree Australia and New Zealand, the word pickle almost always refers to a pickled cucumber, except when it is used figuratively (as in, describing a predicament, “Oh, golly, we’re in such a pickle.”). Elsewhere, pickle also means other kinds of pickled fruit and veg, like pickled onion, or pickled peppers, pickled cauliflower (giardiniera), etc. Pickled mango is very popular in South and East Asia.

heinz-Pickle_PinHeinz and the “pickle pin” craze. The pickle pin is the Heinz icon, a 1-inch, green plastic pickle embossed with the company’s name. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, “Pickle King” H.J. Heinz hired some local kids to pitch fairgoers with a “free gift” if they visited Heinz’s remote booth and “tasted his wares.” By the end of the fair, Heinz had given out some 1 million pickle pins, launching “one of the most successful marketing gambits” in U.S. history. H.J. Heinz Company, Inc. repeated the pickle pin promotion at the World’s Fairs of 1896, 1898 and 1939.

Photo credits: Cleopatra and Caesar, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Public Domain
Single cucumber pickle, Wikipedia
Other photos (home-canned pickles), by the author