On the Jewish food scene: The joy of pickles by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I like almost every kind of pickle. I’m the type of person who keeps an eye on that pickle on your plate and have been known to ask, “Are you going to eat that?” It pains me to watch a pickle go to waste, even if it’s not one of my favorites.

There are too many varieties of cucumber pickles to write about or list all of them, and I’d actually be hard pressed to describe a favorite. It depends on my mood, but I’m willing to eat all of them. Well, I’m not that thrilled with the current burn-your-mouth-so-you-can’t-taste-anything-else trend of pickle, but I have found some spicy ones I like. I’ve even discovered pickles brined in booze: they contain alcohol, although I’ve yet to see a warning label, or age requirement, on them.

I not only like pickles made from cucumbers, but from a variety of other vegetables. I remember when the only time I could eat a pickled tomato was during visits to Brooklyn because pickled green tomatoes were unavailable in Broome County. (Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a jar whose ingredients don’t contain preservatives so it’s been a few years since I’ve eaten one.) One of my favorite small plates that comes with Korean meals is a pickled radish, a vegetable I normally dislike, but which is wonderful and refreshing when pickled. 

Thinking back, I believe my mom once tried to make pickles, but I have no memory of whether that was a success. I’ve thought about doing that myself – especially the quick pickle recipes I’ve seen – but the addition of sugar stops me. It’s not that I don’t eat sugar in already prepared foods, but, after years of not being allowed to eat sugar (medical diet), I still can’t add it to food.

I’ve been known to use pickles in other foods. For example, my favorite recipe for egg salad contains not only a particular type of pickle, but a tablespoon or so of the pickle juice. Pickle flavoring has invaded other forms of cooking. One fast food restaurant even has a batter that contains pickle flavoring. I haven’t tried that, but I can understand the impulse: think of the pickles added to sandwiches for the tang or their ability to cut through the greasy taste. I have found one pickle-flavor item that I disliked: pickle-flavored potato chips. They did not taste like pickles; the taste was similar to eating a tablespoon of dill on its own. (No, thanks.)

Pickles were once considered a Jewish food and not only because almost every deli served a relish tray to nibble on while you were waiting for your meals. In the early 20th century, social workers in New York City were concerned about schoolchildren – those who were the children of Jewish immigrants – eating pickles as their main dish for lunch. The social workers believed that eating pickles made Jews excitable, which they didn’t consider a good thing. After all, they were trying to teach these children to be like model Americans (which meant making them act like Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and pickles weren’t helping.

An excitable Jew eating pickles: yep, that describes me. I see no problem with expressing enthusiasm (you should see me in The Reporter office when I receive a review copy of a book I really wanted) nor do I see a problem with eating pickles. After all, pickles can spice up your food and your life.