A taste can trigger memories from a lifetime ago.
I recently reread Jane Ziegelman’s excellent book 97 Orchard, chronicling the gastronomic history of five waves of immigrants passing through a tenement house at 97 Orchard St. in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In her discussion of the Rogarshevsky family from Russia, Ziegelman presents their recipe for sour pickles. Out of curiosity, I followed the recipe.
The first taste of my product instantly took me back to midcentury Brooklyn. Flatbush Avenue ran southeast from Prospect Park, some 3 miles through the borough’s residential heart. A welter of specialty shops, mom-and-pop groceries, eateries of all kinds, bakeries, and storefronts crowded the street level of three-, four-, and five-story vintage apartment buildings.
Supermarkets had yet to appear. Meat came from the butcher shop. Cheese, eggs, and milk came from the dairy store. Fruits and vegetables came from the produce guy. And, canned and dry goods were purchased at the Busy Bee grocery around the corner.
Each block on Flatbush had at least one pizza stand, one candy store with soda fountain, and a kosher or kosher-style delicatessen. Each of those delis had a big wooden barrel filled with dill pickles.
Those pickles set a benchmark for me that has been dauntingly difficult to reach. The Rogarshevsky recipe, made with fresh Kirby cucumbers, was close enough to trigger a moment of gastronomic time travel. For the briefest instant, I was again in my Uncle Irving’s deli, facing a piled-high pastrami on rye wrapped in butcher’s paper. The sandwich was accompanied by that savory, green spear of pickled perfection.
I am not alone in my pickle passion. Even our Founding Fathers enjoyed a good, crisp pickle. George Washington was an enthusiast, as were John Adams, Dolley Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.”
Pickling is one of the oldest forms of food preservation. The pickling process — preserving some kind of food in brine, vinegar, or alcohol — originated more than 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Native to India, cucumbers soon reached the Fertile Crescent, where they were first preserved and eaten as pickles.
Though dill-pickled cucumbers are the most popular type of pickle, many different fruits, vegetables, and meats can be pickled for our culinary delight. Even fish, ginger, mangoes, baby corn, watermelon rinds, hard-boiled eggs, and pigs’ feet can wind up in “the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar.”
Most commercial cucumber pickles are refrigerated, processed, or fresh-pack.
Refrigerated pickles use fresh cucumbers that are put into jars, covered with a seasoned pickling liquid, and immediately refrigerated. These extra-crispy pickles should remain refrigerated, or they can have a relatively short shelf life.
Processed pickles begin with green cucumbers placed into salt brine tanks for one to three months to ferment the natural sugars. They have a sharper flavor, are usually dark green and somewhat translucent, and are often used for hamburger dills, midgets, and gherkins.
Fresh-pack pickles have become increasingly popular in the last 20 years. Fresh cucumbers are packed directly into jars and covered with a pickling solution of vinegar, salt, and seasonings, depending on the variety of pickle. The containers are vacuum-sealed, quickly heat-pasteurized, then cooled. Fresh-pack pickles are flavored and preserved by the brine. They also retain some of the flavor and color of fresh cucumbers and are generally crisper and less acidic in flavor than processed pickles.
ROGARSHEVSKY DILL PICKLES
1 quart Mason jar, or equal, with top
8 to 12 Kirby cucumbers
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 quart water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2 cloves garlic
1 small dried red pepper
1/4 teaspoon brown mustard seed
1 teaspoon ground horseradish
1 teaspoon pickling spice
Dill enough to pack around the cucumbers
Tightly pack the cucumbers into the jar, liberally interspersing the dill, whole pepper, and garlic cloves. Mix salt and water and boil. Turn off heat and add vinegar and spices; pour mixture over the cucumbers. Be sure the cucumbers are fully covered. Cover and keep cool for a week, or less if you prefer a “greener” pickle.