My love affair with pickles began when I was a child growing up in an outsized Catholic family in Williamsburg, Va. Our pickles were whole cucumbers "hot packed" in a suspiciously frog-green vinegar, cheap and plentiful in giant Heinz jars. We ate them whole, sliced, on cheese sandwiches, minced for homemade Thousand Island dressing (along with ketchup, cottage cheese, and Miracle Whip) over iceberg lettuce wedges.
Since then, though, I've branched out—jalapenos if they're tender, tiny onions, and, at least twice a year, pickled okra with its vinegared velvety skin and flavor-burst seeds, which I eat to my heart's content at Mr. Gatti's pizza buffet. And store-bought Giardiniera, mixed pickled vegetables Italiano—I've been known to consume a small jar in a week, and never cease to be amazed that the assortment and proportion of cauliflower, red pepper, carrots, celery, and such can vary from jar to jar on the supermarket shelf.
In other words, I'm a pickle connoisseur, so much so that when the Los Angeles Times ran pickle recipes this summer, the only idea new to me was Simple Pickled Radishes and I thought it so-so.
Keeping up with L.A.'s pickling chefs, easy, I thought. But just a few minutes at the preserving and canning display at last week's Tennessee Valley Fair sapped the briny smugness right out of me. They had pickled okra, several versions, the blue ribbon winner with a tiny onion and red pepper in the jar, and countless jars of carefully preserved chow-chows, a sort of pepper-cabbage slaw/mustard relish I have never tried once.
Then there were the green tomato pickles and relishes, and the two that truly put me in my place: pickled squashes, one yellow slices, one chopped zucchini, the first in clear liquid with red pepper, the other in darker syrup. I'd never seen such things.
And horror of horrors, these pickles were not innovative or trendy in the least, I found out later from Kim Spargo, culinary arts director for the fair. "No," she tells me gently. "Squash is an old-timey pickle—you put a spoonful over pinto beans, or serve it with meat. I'm sure people in the Appalachians way back were doing squash. It grew easily; they'd have a plethora of squash they needed to preserve for the winter, and salt and vinegar were one of the easiest methods."
Spargo, who freely admits she's a "canning junkie," says most any "alternative" pickle (she took issue with my use of the word "odd") harks back to the olden days. "In a horrible drought year, you might get two pieces of okra and the next year, 14 bushels. They were really relying on that food, not Kroger, to last throughout the winter."
I'd had this idea about using squash pickle in panini. "Probably too much of a pickle taste for a panini," she tells me kindly.
The zucchini relish I admired is also an oldie—but not a goodie in Spargo's book. "There are all kinds of recipes, and I do not care for any of the ones I've tried," she tells me. "It's an odd relish to me." (There's that "odd" word again.)
There are also wildly varying recipes for chow-chow. "A lot of people kept going around and around—‘What is chow-chow?'—so the UT Ag Extension office settled it: a chow-chow is a relish that has cabbage," says Spargo. "It's good in bean dishes and also used in place of mayonnaise on sandwiches or with a roast. We're looking for a time-honored classic chow-chow, and the same with bread and butter pickles. They should have the typical turmeric, and onions, not something funky with a cinnamon stick."
And if you want to do funky pickles?
"That's why we have the ‘other' category," says Spargo.
But odd pickles... ? Not possible.