If you sit down for Sunday dinner in Newfoundland, Canada, you’re likely to find yourself asked, repeatedly, to pass the mustard pickles: big chunks of cucumber, onion, and cauliflower, brined and mixed together in a thick yellow sauce. They’re sweet, they’re spicy, and you’d better not say anything bad about them—their position in the province’s history, and on its residents’ palates, guarantees these pickles perpetual protection from slander.
The pickles’ popularity is the result of Newfoundland’s often cold and always rocky climate. Without the benefit of grocery stores, the island province’s early residents relied on preserved foods—salted meats, puddings, and root vegetables—to get through the long winters. On a plate like that, a dollop of mustard pickles made for a ray of zesty, welcome sunshine. To this day, the pickles are often eaten with “Jigg’s dinner,” a traditional meal made up of salt beef, pease pudding, turnips, carrots, and potatoes, all smothered in gravy.
Mustard pickles are so entrenched in Newfoundland that a recent hiccup in their production caused immediate grief and panic. In March 2016, Smucker Foods of Canada announced the company would end production of two of their mass-produced mustard pickle brands—the acidic “Zest” and the more robust “Habitant.” The news precipitated a wave of mourning across Newfoundland. (“Kiss your pickle goodbye,” read a headline in one local paper.) This was followed by a second wave, this time of action: Fans cleared out supermarket shelves, the Heritage Foundation began stockpiling family recipes, and at least one devotee wrote a musical elegy for the beloved condiment.
Pickle enthusiasts had no real need to fear, though. Inspired by the impassioned response, Smucker’s upped production on the company’s third mustard pickle variety, “Bick’s Sweet Mustard Pickles,” which experts say “tastes the same.” And, of course, there will always be those who make their pickles the old-fashioned way—by sticking a bunch of vegetables, brine, and mustard in a jar, screwing the cap on tight, and waiting for the sweet, storied alchemy to begin.