Pickles at Carnegie Deli.
Pickles at Carnegie Deli. Yusuke Kawasaki/CC BY 2.0

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

Of the many things that we lost in 2016, one of the saddest losses might have been a purely cultural one.

At the end of 2016, the Carnegie Deli, an iconic slice of New York City, served its last overstuffed, overpriced pastrami sandwich.

(That’s despite an on-the-table, quickly rebuffed offer from a New York restaurateur to buy out the owners for $10 million.)

The Jewish deli will survive—Katz’s is still with us, for one thing—but it’s still a bummer.

All of which made us reflect on a small part of a Carnegie Deli meal: the pickle, that brine-y piece of cucumber that offers a contrast to many a meal with its sharp taste and memorable crunch.

It was enough of the Carnegie Deli’s identity that you can actually buy a pickle-scented candle from their still-operational online store.

But of all the objects that we pickle, only the pickled cucumber goes by the simple one-word nickname “pickle,” an iconic if still curious gastronomic institution. But how long have pickles been with us?

Their history, it turns out, might be as unusual as the fact that at diners everywhere, when you order a burger, there along side it, nearly all of the time, is a cheap, salty vegetable, its raison d’etre, aside from custom, apparently unknown. 

Cucumbers reportedly experienced their first dip in the brine in 2030 BC, according to PBS’ The History Kitchen. They are believed to have come from India, though the name of the process came from either the Dutch or German words for “salt” or “brine.”

These days we eat pickles because we like them, but in the pre-refrigeration days, pickling was an essential way to preserve food for storage. The process is closely associated with Jewish food due pickled foods being used by Eastern European Jews to get flavorful food during the cold winter months. (They sure beat bread and potatoes.)

These days, pickles have become less necessary and more novel.

A stack of pickles at Katz's Deli, New York.
A stack of pickles at Katz’s Deli, New York. Joey/CC BY 2.0

They have plenty of reason to exist, of course. For one thing, pickles are one of the most calorie-light foods that you can buy in the store. A single dill pickle spear has just four calories—something largely due to the fact that cucumbers are generally considered to be incredibly low-calorie. The brine doesn’t add any calories, but it does add a lot of sodium, which makes it a bit of a wash as a healthy nutrition source. (On the other hand, some athletic trainers swear by pickle juice as a way to prevent cramps, so it has that going for it.)

The biggest barrier to enjoying pickles might be the vacuum seal on the jars. That seal creates a high amount of pressure, which means you have to work to twist extra hard. But it can be dealt with. This video helps to explain the science behind the problem, while this clip offers an overview of the various jar-opening techniques out there.

If you don’t want to deal with the jar, you can always make your own with a plastic syringe, strangely enough. Over at Instructables, the Oakland Toy Lab explains an alternative pickling strategy that takes just 30 seconds—and a little science.

And you aren’t necessarily stuck with dill pickles, either. For generations, the most popular alternative flavor has been “Bread and butter” pickles, a variety that tastes sweet and sour, rather than like bread and butter. The flavor got its name essentially because the variety’s popularizer, Cora and Omar Fanning, gave their pickles away to a local grocer in exchange for bread and butter.

But the step away from tradition isn’t just limited to the flavor, but the shape. Tiny gherkins, for example, come from a different part of the traditional cucumber family, one that grows extremely undersized. A more obscure-but-interesting variant is the Mexican sour gherkin, which looks like a tiny watermelon. Modern Farmer calls it “adorable, delicious, and easy to grow.”

While pickles maintain a large fan base, not everyone’s a fan. Brian Hickey, a writer for Philly Voice, recently went on a harsh anti-pickles diatribe due to his sheer frustration that they’re included by default with many sandwiches.

A late 19th century advertisement for Lilly Brand mixed pickles.
A late 19th century advertisement for Lilly Brand mixed pickles. Boston Public Library/CC BY 2.0

“Some of you like pickles. I get that. But you are not decent people, at least not if you think it’s OK for a restaurant to force pickles upon those of us whose stomachs turn at the mere sight or—worstly—smell of those squishy, acidic intruders,” Hickey wrote in his blog post last month.

When asked if he saw any positives about pickles, he simply responded, “nope.” Some people love pickles, others hate ‘em. (I fall firmly in the “love” camp.)

The interesting thing about pickles is that, for decades, it was largely treated as a regional phenomenon in the United States—a family-owned thing that wasn’t really encumbered by advertising. Unlike the cheese curl, they didn’t immediately go national.

That left an opening for a big brand like Heinz to own the market, and there was a period where they were relatively dominant. But in the early 1970s, Vlasic, which started out as a family-owned firm, made a big play—a play that redefined the industry and made pickles as important a part of every pantry as cereal or baking soda. Before the Michigan-based company came along, pickles in many cases were a strongly regional product, sold in much the same way as milk.

But with the company’s factories growing along with its fortunes, it was able to take its Polish-style pickles national in part through well-considered manufacturing strategies—for example, pickles that were too large to be used whole in traditional jars would get reused in other contexts, like relish or as dill spears.

Mexican sour gherkins mixed with pickled green beans.
Mexican sour gherkins mixed with pickled green beans. Public Domain

“If you buy a farmer’s crop, you get a mixture of cucumbers. You have to use it all. It’s like the meat business, where they use all of the pig except the squeal,” explained Bob Vlasic, the longtime head of Vlasic and son of company founder Joseph Vlasic, explained in a 1973 Detroit Free Press article.

A big element of Vlasic’s growth was its decision to advertise—a bit of a change from most of its competitors, the largest of which, Heinz, effectively treated its pickle business as a sidebar to the main condiment business. According to a Funding Universe analysis, Vlasic and Heinz each held around 10 percent of the national pickle market in 1970. Around that time, Vlasic introduced its popular animated stork mascot.

Why a stork? Credit an old wives’ tale. The company decided to play off the idea that pregnant women crave pickles and created a mascot with a wink and a nod—something highlighted by this commercial.

Eventually, the company gained the slogan, “the pickle pregnant women crave.”

The company’s clever marketing helped it blow past Heinz—while the condiment-maker stayed at 10 percent of the market in 1977, Vlasic’s share of the pickle market grew to a quarter.

But Vlasic has had its share of ups and downs since. In 1978, beset by the price of pickles, it sold itself to Campbell’s Soup, in one of the soup-maker’s largest-ever acquisitions. Two decades later, Campbell’s spun it off, and in 2001, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Initially, it looked like Heinz, which had lost its footing against Vlasic in the pickle aisle, would swoop in, but a new buyer took over and was able to use the firm as a centerpiece of a new food empire, Pinnacle Foods. Pinnacle itself was acquired by Hillshire Brands in 2014.

The stork is still around, but maybe not as prominent as it once was. (It only has roughly 26 more Twitter followers than I do.)

But for a brief time in the 1970s, Vlasic turned pickles into a buzzworthy product by marketing the hell out of them.

Jars of home-made pickles.
Jars of home-made pickles. Christine/CC BY-SA 2.0

“Most of our competitors were manufacturing oriented, generations of fine pickle makers and proud of it,” Bob Vlasic told Forbes in 1997. “We came in exactly the opposite, as marketers who manufactured to have something to sell.”

The industry stagnation that led Vlasic to take over the pickle aisle in the ‘70s hasn’t really faded away. Pickles are tasty, but kind of boring. The pickle sector is mature. It’s hard to make a mass-market pickle hip.

Heck, one of the techniques Bob Vlasic used to convince the public to eat more pickles was downright cheesy. In 1974, Vlasic was credited as the author of a book titled Bob Vlasic’s 101 Pickle Jokes.

The book featured illustrations from well-known cartoonist Don Orehek. According to a 1975 mention of the book in Cosmopolitan, the title had sold 250,000 copies in its first year. People in the ‘70s loved cheesy pickle jokes, apparently.

(How cheesy are we talking? Well, here’s a sample joke: “Who was that pickle-o I saw you with last night? That was no pickle, that was my fife!”)

If that’s the high-water-mark for innovation in pickle marketing, it makes sense that the leaders in the market, including Heinz and Claussen, haven’t really done a lot to move the pickle forward in the past few decades.

But there has been some attempts at evolution in the pickle market, even, as any hipster would tell you, at the artisanal level. Firms like Brooklyn Brine have experimented with offbeat cukes like the Off-Centered Beer Pickle (which, excitingly, infuses Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA into its pickles) and with highly ethical business approaches, like paying its workers $16 an hour.

High-priced pickles have been easy to mock, but some, like NPR reporter Adam Davidson, have been quick to defend the firms’ business acumen.

“Instead of rolling our eyes at self-conscious Brooklyn hipsters pickling everything in sight, we might look to them as guides to the future of the American economy,” Davidson write in a 2012 New York Times Magazine essay. “Just don’t tell them that. It would break their hearts to be called model 21st-century capitalists.”

In the case of Heinz, at least, they appear to be noticing the desire for a cuke rethink. Last year, the conglomerate—which has attempted to move beyond dill with two new flavors—Spicy Garlic and Sweet & Spicy.

A driving factor behind this shift, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is segment stagnation. Despite pickles being a $1 billion business, the segment isn’t growing.

As steeped in tradition (and salty vinegar) as pickles are, the question naturally arises: Do pickles need to be the biggest market segment in the grocery store, or even the condiment aisle? Can we embrace tiny cucumbers without the veneer of big business?

And when is someone going to come out with 101 MORE Pickle Jokes? Because that’s a book I would buy.

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

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