What’s the Dill? The History of the Pickle

After finishing your deli sandwich, is there anything better than the first bite of a crunchy dill pickle? The pickle spear is a staple at delis around the country, always served as a side to those big sandwiches.

In fact pickles are so popular that the average American eats about 9 pounds of them each year. But how did the pickle originate and more importantly, how did the dill end up a staple of the deli sandwich?

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The Origins of the Pickle

Pickles have been around for thousands of years, dating back as early as 2030 B.C.E. when cucumbers began spreading their way across Mesopotamia. The cucumbers had to be soaked in an acidic brine to preserve them for transport and the pickle was born. The first mention of pickles appears in ancient Chinese manuscripts that are more than 9,000 years old.

Anthropologists think Cleopatra attributed the nutrients in pickles to her beauty, and that they were a favorite food of many notable figures throughout history, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar.

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When Christopher Columbus voyaged to the New World, he had pickles on his ships to prevent scurvy among his crew. The English brought their methods for making sweet pickles with vinegar, sugar and spices to the New World.

The term “pickle” likely originated from either the Dutch word “pekel” or northern German “pókel,” which means “salt” or “brine.” These two elements play a crucial role in the pickling process.

During the Victorian era in England, pickles were a status symbol for the wealthy, as was the pickle castor. This was a piece of luxurious serving ware used to hold pickled produce. Pickling cucumbers was common among families with private gardens in the 19th century, and pickles were an essential part of daily meals.

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Pickles Go Commercial

The popularity of pickle castors grew between 1860 and 1890, resulting in more intricate designs featuring flowers and gargoyles. They were often displayed in a fancy ceramic or glass pickle castor at the center of the dining table.

But the pickles in castors were mostly made (or pickled) at home. And then H.J. Heinz introduced one of the first commercially produced pickles in 1860 and struck gold at the 1893 World’s Fair with a tiny pickle pendant. The free pickle pendant giveaway was a marketing campaign Heinz used to introduce the company’s ’57 varieties’ of pickles, preserves and other jarred foods; it’s still considered one of the most successful in American history.

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Other big names you know soon followed, including Clausen in 1870, Mount Olive Pickles in 1926 and Vlasic in 1942.

Today a host of artisan pickle makers have turned their love for this centuries-old food into successful businesses. Take Nick Melvin, chief pickle officer at Doux South, a farm-to-table pickle company in Atlanta. Melvin says pickling has been part of his life since he was a kid spending summers with his grandmother in North Carolina.

“She had a decent size garden for a suburban home and was always pickling hauls from her garden so she could lock in the freshness as soon as possible if there was going to be an overabundance, Melvin says. “It was here that I first got to experience and be a part of the pickling process.”

Doux South sells several varieties of pickles, including bread and butter and dill, as well as other pickled products like relish, tomatoes, onions and the Southern fave, chow chow.

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The Dill Pickle and the Deli Sandwich

So why did the dill pickle spear end up being served with the deli sandwich? The practice started when Jewish immigrants began opening delis in New York City around the 1930s. Many offered dill pickles as palate cleansers to customers, because the acidity from the pickle provides a sharp contrast to the fatty meats of the sandwich. They also add a nice crunch.

Once the pickle became a popular side in New York, it caught on across the U.S. because there was nothing to prepare and the pickles were cheap. Today, pickles are so common as a side item with sandwiches, most restaurants and delis don’t even list them on the menus.

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Pickling Cukes Is a Science

So what goes into “pickling” a pickle? Essentially “to pickle” means “to preserve.” So to make pickles from cucumbers, they must be soaked in a brine, which is usually vinegar plus flavorful spices. This brine is highly acidic and prevents harmful bacteria from surviving, resulting in a preserved and pickled cuke.

Salt-brining is another method of pickling in which a salt brine — instead of vinegar — is used to ferment the cucumbers. Fermentation causes “good” bacteria to grow and reduces the chances the food will spoil from bad bacteria. A lot of dill pickles are made using this method.

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Pickling, of course, is not just limited to just cucumbers. You can also pickle fruits, vegetables, fish, meats and eggs. Kimchi and sauerkraut are both made using the salt-brine method.

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Ways to Spice Your Pickles

There are a lot of different ways to make pickles, but these are Melvin’s favorite ways to spice and prepare pickles.

Salt water fermented pickles. The vegetables pickle under lacto-fermentation, resulting in a slightly funky and sour flavor, depending on how long you ferment them.

Dill pickles. For the dill pickle, you need white vinegar, mustard seeds, fresh and dried dill, water, salt and white sugar. It has a very bright and sour flavor with a crisp bite of vinegar.

Bread and butter pickle. These require white vinegar, salt, lots of white sugar, onions, garlic, celery seed, red chili flakes and turmeric. They have a slight yellow tint with a sweeter flavor profile and a firm, crunchy texture.

Refrigerator pickles. The cukes are sliced thin and marinated in a seasoned vinegar/water mixture and kept in the refrigerator. “Nothing fancy needed, but the result is a vegetable-forward crisp pickle.”

“The practice and art of pickling and preserving is an incredibly important tradition to teach generations below us, as it did play a huge role in so many people’s lives in the past,” Melvin says. “Plus, it’s good and fun, and we are always in need of that!”

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During the harsh winters of the 19th and early 20th centuries, pickles played a crucial role in sustaining Jewish communities in Europe. Eating pickles provided them with vital calories and a source of vitamin C.

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