Monday, July 11, 2011

Tracking the Roots of the Kool-Aid Pickle Craze

This Huffington Post article says that Kool-Aid pickles are a "Southern tradition."  But I had never heard of them until I read this article by John T. Edge in the New York Times back in May 2007.  Edge says that dill pickles soaked in Kool Aid are of recent provenance, and first began to be concocted in the Delta region of the South, largely in the heavily African-American population of that region.

And that sounds right to me.  There is a very long tradition of eating dill pickles as snacks in the Arkansas Delta, I know for sure, because I've seen evidence of it all my life.  Every tiny crossroads store in the Deep South used to have a large jar of dill pickles on its counter, which were for sale individually, usually to accompany a can of Vienna sausages, a wedge of what was called "rat cheese" (a mild cheddar sold by pieces from a big hoop on the counter of these stores), and a few crackers (these sold individually or in bunches out of a barrel).  At the HBCUs at which I've taught, the bookstores carry on the pickle tradition by selling dill pickles out of a large jar on the counter of the store, along with books, and students buy them all day long as snacks, while they come and go from classes.

(And please understand I mean absolutely nothing racial in recording these impressions.  My point is that people without lavish economic resources, regardless of skin color, try to add as much excitement as possible to their diets as cheaply as possible, as anyone in their shoes might do.  And I seriously doubt that most of the other culinary atrocities featured in the HuffPo article about food served at American state fairs had an African-American hand in their concoction.)

People who don't have a large amount of money to purchase nutritious food often rely on what's cheap, easy, available--and laden with fats, salts, and carbohydrates.  Dill pickles help to liven up a cheap meal of bologna and white bread, or Vienna sausages and crackers, and for that reason, long had a prominent place in the crossroads stores catering to working-class whites and blacks in the Deep South.

The Edge article notes a practice that also has a long history in the black community in the Delta region of Arkansas, and which, Edge thinks, is likely the predecessor of the Kool-Aid pickle.  This is the practice of taking a large dill pickle, hollowing out its inside, and then inserting a soft peppermint stick into the center and using that as a straw to suck out the pickle juice.

And, interestingly enough, my cousin in Houston told me while I was visiting him this past weekend that he learned to do that very thing when we were growing up, from the black children who bought pickles and peppermint sticks at our grandfather's crossroads store on the outskirts of Little Rock, where the Delta begins. 

I somehow missed learning about that particular tradition as my cousin and I were growing up and playing around my grandfather's store with the African-American children who often bought things there.  I have to say, I find the thought of both the Kool-Aid pickle and the pickle with peppermint a bit unthinkable.  My stomach churns at the thought of both.

But I do understand the craving of people who have not always had many food choices for something savory, something that piques the palate and makes otherwise unsavory, cheap food more palatable.  This is precisely why there's a longstanding tradition in most cultures of serving some kind of relish with meals--like kimchi, the plethora of salsas used in Mexican cuisine, or the many pickles that grace the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch table.

And when all is said and done, with food, it is very much chacun à son goût, isn't it, after all?

No comments: