A friend of mine and I were talking about what I’ll term heritage foods the other night. I mentioned pickled fish as an example, but the truth is, pickling has been around for more than four thousand years, and is one of the oldest ways of preserving foods for later consumption found in many cultures around the world.
In a Pickle: It’s Not Just for Cucumbers
Pickling and brining are closely related techniques that involve active bacterial cultures in the preservation process. One uses an oxidized fermented liquid and the other relies on a salt bath, but the result of prolonging the useful life of a food is the same. Vinegar is often used, which is the result of bacterial oxidation in a fermented liquid–wine, beer, and certain other liquids in which the sugars have metabolized to alcohol are often used. Some scholars have theorized that storage in alcohol inadvertently led to the advent of pickling. Fermented beverage technology predates that of risen or leavened bread making.
: a solution or bath for preserving or cleaning
: a brine or vinegar solution in which foods are preserved
As I was researching this topic, because I wanted some nice, sound references upon which to base my statements, what I noticed were a great many links about the history of The Pickle, by which is apparently meant almost exclusively cucumbers. Sure, cucumbers were pickled in the Fertile Crescent four and a half thousand years ago, and cucumbers are rather amenable to being pickled. However, pickling is applied to fruits, vegetables, and meats throughout history, across thousands of miles of varied geography, and takes a central role in cultures that seem dramatically different from one another.
The ancient Romans consumed a pickled fish sauce called garum, the potent flavor of which was carried by astonishingly small amounts. Greek philosophers extolled the virtues of the “pickle” in their writings. The inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent, the Indus River Valley, and the Indian Subcontinent all pickled a variety of foods for many centuries. While the political and cultural makeup of these regions has shifted dramatically over the duration, the rather important role of pickled foods has remained a constant.
Asian cultures each adapt the pickling process to their own food heritage. But in each case, you can easily find a range of fruits, vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, meat, and fish that are preserved with the same basic technology. As well, Asian cultures use different vinegar base materials–including rice wine, beer, peach, and grape juice. The word kimchi
in Korean translates directly as “pickles.” There are hundreds of varieties, and many ways in which they can be prepared.
A similar case for the crucial role of pickles exists in both China and Japan–with pickle making elevated to a diverse and complex art form.
The Pickles of Destiny
It shapes the languages and eating customs of each culture, but in every instance, there is a practical root: Nutrition. Pickling vegetables and fruits or rare protein sources enabled people to live in places where weather or geography often isolated them for long periods of time. But humble pickles also hold the key to long-distance trade and conquest. Medieval and Renaissance Europe went a bit made for the exotic pickled flavors brought to them by the Silk Road. Reconnection with the Classical texts of Greece and Rome, which were preserved by Islamic scholars, brought them mention of the Middle Eastern pickle fame of antiquity.
Trade with Asia, India, and the Middle Eastern potentates offered them new avenues of spices and preservation techniques. It encouraged them to elaborate and make up their own recipes–many of which didn’t really work well, but at least they were trying! Pickled eggs and onions, pickled herring, and other darkly mysterious spreads today known simply as “pickle,” have found their way into the coloquial cuisine of many British and formerly British spaces on the globe. The popular and somewhat infamous tomato ketchup most of us know as a sweet, tomato-based condiment was originally a pickled fish sauce. Wrap your brain around that one for a minute. And let’s not forget the Norse peoples.
Fermentation and Whey Pickling
In many instances, the concept of preserving the nutrients of animal mass can be seen most clearly in the Northern European cultures. Primarily agrarian in nature, they did keep animals for protein. However, meat was oftena seasonal byproduct of reducing herd size for overwintering. The milk from live breeding animals was considered more valuable than the muscle mass. However, many groups also kept pigs, which were allowed to run wild in the forest feeding on nuts and fruits during the warm months. Fermentation in whey was a common meat preservation technique, as were ground fermentation, and freezing or dry smoking.
In modern America, we see evidence of these many pickling traditions through the lens of heritage foods. While pickling techniques arrived with many immigrant populations, they also proved invaluable to the movement of those populations. Minfest Destiny would have ended in dysentary and starvation without pickling–the goodness of its success, I’ll leave you to debate. The point is, pickling, when properly done, is one of the best methods for long-term preservation of foods.
They may have changed over the years to conform to modern palates more easily, but they have endured with remarkable integrity. Pickled peaches, pickled beets, herring, kimchi, saurkraut, century egg, tofu, fermented bean sprouts, many ingredients in Americanized Indian and Asian cuisines, and even watermelon rinds from “Way Down South.” In many cultural cuisines, every meal is eaten with some variety of pickle. This technique isn’t reserved for foods you would see in the occasional fast food chicken sandwich or at a neighborhood summer barbecue. It’s embedded in the way many cultures think about food–salty, tangy, perhaps with notes of sweet or bitter.
Some Additional References