By Linda Morel
After New York Harbor, the first sight of America my great-grandmother had was a pickle vendor, selling kosher dills for a penny apiece. Wearing a kerchief, she was five months pregnant with my grandfather and craved the tang of pickles from home, the Jewish ghetto of Vilna, Lithuania.
"We have no time for pickles," her husband said.
"But I'm dying for one." She approached the vendor and his barrels. As she opened a satchel containing their money—a penny and a $5 gold piece—a thief grabbed the gold and ran.
Her husband tried to catch him but returned breathless and empty-handed. "Are you happy?" he asked. "We're broke because of a pickle."
But what could he do? He loved this woman who was crunching away on her purchase.
Hearing this story throughout my childhood, I knew why I loved kosher dill pickles—the brine ran in my blood.
"Pickled cucumbers achieved great popularity in many parts of Europe and the Middle East, but arguably nowhere more than among Eastern European Jews, who ate them with black bread and later potatoes as the bulk of their diet," says Rabbi Gil Marks, author of Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World (Wiley Publishing, 2004).
"To our Ashkenazic ancestors, pickles were no trifling matter, but rather a fundamental part of their diet," he says, noting that submerging vegetables in brine for later use not only contributed valuable nutrition in places where fresh produce was unavailable during the fall and winter but also added kick to an essentially bland diet.
When most American Jews think of pickles, they long for kosher dills, whether sour, half-sour or new (hardly dunked in brine). But Sephardic Jews have their own pickle preferences.
"Pickles are equally important in Middle Eastern culture," says Jennifer Felicia Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes From Grandma Fritzie's Kitchen (The Harvard Common Press, 2002). "In our homes and restaurants, the first things you see at the table are pickled olives and assorted pickled vegetables, such as cauliflower, beets, turnips and hot peppers. With varying shapes and colors, they add texture and balance to meals." Sephardic Jews also eat pickled cucumbers, but they're different from Ashkenazic dills. They're tiny, like gherkins, yet salty,not sweet.
"On the practical side, pickling foods not only maximizes longevity in hot climates," says Abadi, "but people perspire, and salt helps retain water. Throughout the Middle East, vinegar and citrus are pickling agents, which aid in digestion."
The Jewish love of pickles dates to the ancient world. "Throughout recorded history, both the elite and impoverished masses relied on pickles," says Marks, explaining that a wide variety of pickled produce was standard fare in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. While wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites lamented the loss of the cucumbers they enjoyed in Egypt.
Until recently, sauerkraut (pickled fermented cabbage) was a mainstay throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Over the centuries, Ashkenazic Jews filled wooden barrels or ceramic crocks with cabbage, cucumbers or beets, leaving them in root cellars to ferment in a salt brine seasoned with spices.
"A primary preservative, salt restricts harmful bacteria," says Marks, explaining that when you soak produce in salt water, helpful bacteria feed on vegetable sugars, turning the brine cloudy—a process called lacto-fermentation, which boosts flavor, contains no dairy and is safe to ingest. Yet the lacto-fermentation method is declining among pickle producers, who often add vinegar to the mixture.
"Once you introduce vinegar to brines, you transform the balance and alter the flavor," says Marks. "Real connoisseurs claim vinegar ruins the whole thing."
"Salt pickles have a unique taste," says Richard Attardi, the sales manager of Ba-Tampte Pickles. "When you get hooked on them, you're hooked for life. Salt pickles enhance deli sandwiches, whereas vinegar pickles overwhelm them."
Once part of a thriving pickle industry serving Ashkenazic Jews on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Ba-Tampte Pickles opened its doors 90 years ago. Still a family business, the company is now located in Brooklyn. Initially, Ba-Tampte ("zesty" in Yiddish) sold pickled produce from barrels, but in the 1950s the company began bottling and marketing its products across the country.
In recent decades, Jews have rarely frequented the Lower East Side, and only a couple of pickle stores remain. "The old Jewish community is gone," says Marks.
"At one time, everybody had a grandmother who made pickles," Attardi says. "But no more."
"We receive letters from customers who recall their grandmother's crock of pickles in the basement," says Kathy Gray, co-owner of Bubbie's Pickles with her husband, John. "They say they've been looking for pickles like ours since their bubbie died, and now they've found them. It brings tears to my eyes."
"Pickles are the ultimate comfort food," adds John Gray from the company's headquarters in Stockton, Calif., noting that their recipe hails from Eastern Europe and is about 100 years old.
"We use no preservatives or vinegar," Kathy says. "Inside of barrels, we place pickles in a brine of salt, water and spices. Using old-fashioned methods, we cover the tops of barrels, holding covers down with rocks." Although vinegar is new to Ashkenazic pickling, its tang has enhanced Sephardic pickles for centuries. "Certain things exist in all cultures, and pickling is one of them," Abadi says.
Traveling to America by ship, her great-grandmother—like mine—loved the salty tang of pickles. En route from Palestine, she carried homemade pickles so her family could keep kosher during the voyage. The pickles lasted 30 days, and their vinegary and tart taste enlivened the boat's bland fare.
To the Jewish people, there's nothing like the snap of a pickle from home, wherever home might be.
Linda Morel is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.
Kosher Dill Pickles
(From Olive Trees and Honey, by Gil Marks)
- 24 of the freshest 4-inch pickling cucumbers
- 8 cups soft water
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 12 to 16 sprigs fresh dill
- 8 cloves garlic
- 16 whole peppercorns
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Soak the cucumbers in ice water for between 1 and 8 hours. Drain. Snip the end not attached to the vine. In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the water and salt. Simmer, stirring to dissolve the salt. Remove from heat and cool.
Sterilize four 1-quart jars, lids and rubber rings. Divide the seasonings among the jars. Pack 6 cucumbers upright in each jar.
For new pickles: Pour the cooled brine over the cucumbers to cover, leaving 1/2-inch headroom. Tightly cover the jars and shake. Place upside down and leave overnight. If any liquid seeps from the jars, tighten the lids. Place the jars lid side up. Refrigerate.
For half-sours: Place jars in a dark place at room temperature to ferment. After 2 to 3 days, bubbles will rise in the liquid. Two to three days later, bacteria begins souring the cucumbers, which remain bright green outside. Refrigerate to slow fermentation.
For sour pickles: After 2 to 3 weeks, bubbles stop forming. Pickles are greenish-brown. Refrigerate.
(From A Fistful of Lentils, by Jennifer Felicia Abadi)
- 1 large beet, peeled and quartered
- One of the following:
- 1 head cauliflower, broken by hand into florets
- 1/2 medium-size head green cabbage,
- cored and cut into 2-inch chunks
- 2 pounds turnips, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds, then sliced again into semicircles.
- 4 cups cold water
- 1-1/2 cups white vinegar
- 4-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 4 large cloves garlic, cut into halves
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Fill a 1-quart jar with vegetable of choice, placing the quartered beet on the bottom.
Bring the water, vinegar, salt and garlic to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Pour the mixture over the vegetables. Sprinkle in the red pepper, mix and close the jar tightly. Set in a cool, dark place for 72 hours. Refrigerate up to 4 months.
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