We all have objects that we notice every day, that ground us in our communities. Maybe it’s a particular mailbox, or a nice street tree. Maybe it’s a sign on the way to work that makes you laugh. Or maybe it’s a pickle jar, perched on a concrete wall next to a highway ramp.
Such is the case for many who drive through Des Peres, Missouri. On the ramp that leads from I-270 North to Manchester Road, near a grocery store and a busy shopping mall, there often sits a quiet and mysterious jar of pickles. When it falls, breaks, or disappears, it is always replaced. It is the highway’s warty lodestar.
Barb Steen, who lives nearby, first noticed the jar in 2012. She’s been watching it ever since. “Every day for six years, I brushed my teeth, I got in my car, and I looked for pickles,” she says. Seasons changed: the sun beat down, then snow piled up. Construction and protest actions shut down the highway. “And the pickles remained,” she says. “Like there was some aura around it or something, protecting it.”
About two years into this routine, Steen decided to spread the love. She started a Facebook group, “Team Pickle.” “These Pickles need a Fan Page!” she explained in the group’s description. “There has got to be a story behind these pickles and inquiring minds want to know.” She closed out with a prophetic goal: “Let’s make them famous!!”
At first, about 25 people joined this condiment community. Members described sightings, and shared blurry drive-by photos. They posted pickle jokes and memes, as well as theories about the jar’s provenance. Perhaps it was a kind of shrine, meant to honor someone who had loved pickles. Perhaps it was aliens.
Steen has her own favorite conjecture: “Maybe it’s somebody with a forbidden love, and they put the pickles up there at their work exit: ‘Hey, know I’m thinking of you.’”
Attention has its downsides. Quite soon after the Facebook group began, the first pickle jar disappeared. It had been pretty gnarly: half-evaporated, with its label rubbed off, and “just this nude color, no real green to it,” says Steen. Still, members mourned. One wrote a poem: “A jar / Viewed from afar / Has left a scar / Upon our hearts / Alas it departs!” That February, after it had still failed to return, another fan put it more simply: “I miss the pickle jar.”
But some objects can transcend their original form. Over a year after the first jar vanished, another showed up. It was a different brand and quantity—fuller, more verdant—but that didn’t matter. The group was jubilant.
This cycle continued: A jar might topple, empty out, or otherwise abscond. It would soon reappear anew. There have been yellow-lidded jars filled with mostly brine and red-labled ones packed full of slices; Mt. Olives decorated with a festive bow and Vlasics reinforced by Tupperware. But while the particulars of the jar change, its spirit stays the same. Team Pickle members tend to describe each incarnation as “the pickle jar,” or simply “the pickles”—as in “the pickles are back.”
Just this month, after a Reddit thread was posted about the pickles, a spate of local news reports began to bring new attention to the jar. Fox 2 news in St. Louis told the story and asked for reader tips. The Kansas City Star compiled the best jokes and memes. Then the story went national, picked up by TV and radio stations far from Missouri. The membership of Team Pickle has since risen from a few hundred nearby fans to over 2,500 from all over the place. “We’ve got the U.K., we’ve got Hawaii,” says Steen. “It’s crazy.”
This fame has had some positive effects. Curious onlookers who had formerly been going solo—like the aforementioned Redditor Ian Cunningham, who took the time to hop out of his car and take close-up portraits of the jar—now have a place to gather.
Some of these new members have been searching for briny brethren for years. “I’ve been talking about them ever since early 2012… I started to think that I was losing my mind,” wrote one. “I am a tow truck driver and have drove past it numerous times and I can say I’m glad I’m not the only one that has noticed this jar of pickles,” added another.
New clues have emerged: one member swears there was “a mystery volleyball in the same location” just a few years ago. Another has connected the pickles to construction sites, saying that workers drink the juice to prevent cramps. One put a slice of the mystery to rest, admitting that she put a new jar on the ledge back in 2016.
But as with any move to the mainstream, there are cons as well. Some old-timers have posted worrying that people will sour things, either by messing with the pickles or by trying too hard to find answers. At least one has already proposed a stakeout. “Even today, other pickles have showed up in St. Louis at other exit ramps,” says Steen, who adds that even though she started the group, she hopes the original pickles’ provenance remains a mystery: “Sometimes, guessing is more fun than knowing.”
Perhaps the biggest downside is that the pickle jar has once again disappeared: As of the morning of April 6, 2018, the concrete ledge is empty. Overall, though, the group is not despairing. If there’s anything they have learned, it’s that the jar always comes back. It just might not be quite the same.
Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
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