Pickling is an art form. I’ve done some of my own home pickling of things like red onions and sweet peppers but I have yet to perfect a batch. Ironically, I have not attempted to pickle cucumbers, which is so synonymous with pickling that they’ve taken on the moniker themselves. They are the Kleenex and Xerox of the pickling world. If I want to master the pickle pickle, I need to know more. So, let’s learn about who invented pickles together.
Who invented pickles?
PIckles have been around for a long, long, long time. In fact, they’re so old they appear twice in the bible (Numbers 11:5 and Isaiah 1:8) and Cleopatra is said to have credited her beauty to a diet of pickles. Due to their age, there isn’t one person who can be credited with inventing pickles. However, historians and food scientists (aka people much smarter than I am) have been able to triangulate the where and when of their creation.
Where were pickles invented?
The standard cucumber got its start in India where it initially grew as a wild vegetable. Their growth continued east into China and further west into Mesopotamia, which is modern Iraq. Since this is the source of the cucumber, people assume their initial pickling happened somewhere amongst these cultures.
When were pickles invented?
With that geographical information in mind, we now have to figure out when people started pickling. And by “we,” I mean the smart archaeologists who probably have PhDs or something. These brainiacs say that pickling with vinegar probably dates to around 2400 BCE in Mesopotamia. There is even more specific evidence of pickled cucumbers in 2030 BCE Mesopotamia.
How were pickles invented?
Pickling is a preservation process, which was extremely important for early civilizations who didn’t have DoorDash or Instacart or refrigeration. Figuring out ways to make food last longer was a matter of survival.
Pickling involves preserving food in a solution that consists of vinegar and water. The vinegar creates an acidic environment that stunts the growth of food-destroying bacteria. This lets those cukes live long past their pick date and also gives them their tart, acidic flavor and softens their texture.
Another method of pickling is brining, which involves putting food into a solution of water and salt. In this version, there is no acid, so how does the pickling happen? Bacteria begin to eat the cucumbers and then excrete lactic acid into the salt and water solution. Eventually, they excrete so much acid that the environment becomes toxic to them and they die. That’s right, bacteria die in their own waste so that we can enjoy a delicious briny pickle. Try not to think about it.
As pickling grew in popularity and spread around the world, folks started adding other ingredients. In the effort to create a bacteria-free environment for the vinegar solution, things like dill, mustard seed, and garlic were added to the mix. These ingredients are naturally antimicrobial, so while initially serving that purpose, they also add a flavor profile to pickles that we have come to expect.
Who invented fried pickles?
I love a pickle on any sandwich, and they are particularly great on a fried chicken sandwich. But the first time I encountered a fried pickle, my mind was blown. Of course, this has to be of Southern origin—the chefs down there are the kings of the fryer.
The popularity of the fried pickle is usually attributed to a man named Bernell Austin, the owner-proprietor of the Duchess Drive-In in Arkansas. In 1960, he dipped pickles into fish batter in an attempt to make a new snack for moviegoers. While people were certainly frying pickles before that, this is when they really took off. Now, they are in bars across the country and always the first thing I order with a big side of ranch dressing.