“On a hot day in Virginia, I know of nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the steps in Aunt Sally’s cellar.” — Thomas Jefferson
Early one clear Sunday morning, a group of us filled Stoodley’s Tavern at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, to hear botany professor Judith Sumner bring her vast knowledge of ethnobotany, foodways and historic cookery to the subject of pickling.
Looking back, pickling has long been an essential way of preserving food for storage, especially before the advent of refrigeration. The basics of pickling hasn’t changed much since then — it’s simply the preserving of food in acid (vinegar), brine (salt), or through lacto-fermentation (a bacterial process that produces lactic acid). As for etymology, the word “pickle” is rooted the Dutch one for brine, pekel.
Dr. Sumner examines the history of pickling in America through “receipts” gathered from such early New England cookbooks as Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796), Lydia Child’s The American Frugal Housewife (1833), and Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book (1858). Paging through these, one is struck by the diversity of foods used for pickling. There are instructions for pickling barberries, nasturtium seeds, green walnuts, and something called martinoes or devil’s claw. This distinctive annual was originally brought over from Africa, and its young fruit, when preserved, is said to resemble pickled peaches.
Recipes for pickled mangoes also abound, an outgrowth of early trade in tropical fruit. Rather than just the fruit, it can also refer to a method of pickling. “To mango” consisted of filling a fruit’s cavity — such as melons, peaches or peppers — with spices; tying the two halves back together, then brining. One senses this would have made for a quite special preserve, something to show off in one’s best cut-glass pickle dish when guests arrived.
Many of the herbs and spices associated with pickling are rich in antimicrobial phytochemicals, providing an extra measure of safety as well as flavor, and were chosen according to tradition and availability. Clockwise from upper left: Cinnamon, bay leaves, mustard seeds, allspice and cloves, dried garlic, and turmeric. Other enhancements include nutmeg and mace; ginger, horseradish, onions, dill, and red or black pepper.
Reflecting time and place, pickles were very much a vernacular food, and varied according to locale and family tradition. The sharing of pickling recipes would have been common and, much like that of quilt patterns, passed on from one household to another. The morning ended with a tasting of Judith’s own delicious homemade pickles, a sampling of bread and butter pickles, pickled red onion, sauerkraut, dill pickles, and pickled sweet peppers from her jewel-like jars. With the current revival of interest in these foodways, each bite, as friend and host John Forti reminds us, connects the past with the future, as well as the present.
“Pickles and relishes, so much a part of our heritage, have given a lift to many a homely meal.” — Joy of Cooking, 1964
• Judith Sumner, The Natural History of Medicinal Plants and American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants
• John Forti, The Heirloom Gardener
• Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth, NH