Pickle: The Flavor of the Moment
From fried chicken to potato chips to ice cream, the humble pickle is being incorporated into a bewildering selection of foods and drinks.
My wife and I were eating dill pickle-flavored pork rinds, when I broke the news to her that fast-food chain Sonic had just launched a new pickle-flavored slushie.
“I think,” she said sagely, “we’ve reached peak pickle.”
The next morning I was still chuckling to myself about her comment, when I watched Sunny Anderson and Jeff Mauro carve shot glasses out of pickles on the Food Network show, The Kitchen, and fill them with bourbon.
But it wasn’t that long ago when pickle-flavored anything seemed exotic and slightly scandalous.
In 2007, a scrappy little Brooklyn pickle brand called McClure’s was just getting rolling. At the time “we were roughly making 720 jars per day,” remembers Joe McClure, co-founder and COO of the company.
Some of those jars were being stored below the satirically named bar, the Bushwick Country Club. As a courtesy, the watering hole offered patrons plates of sliced pickles. According to lore, bartender Reggie Cunningham and some hell-raising Floridian got over their respective hangovers by chasing a shot of Old Crow Bourbon with a shot of pickle brine. And with that the now ubiquitous Pickle Back was suddenly born.
What strikes me most about the Pickle Back’s history and success is that most people used to squish up their faces at the concept, which only added to its appeal. Pickles? Ewww. Even John Roberts, the owner of the Bushwick Country Club, in an interview he filmed with Brooklyn Magazine, said that he thought the drink sounded disgusting.
My, how times have changed.
Utz has rippled chips in a flavor they call “fried dill pickle.” I like the heavy dill aromas, but there’s also a malty sweet ketchup thing going on—perhaps this is meant to be the fried part?—that is less appealing.
Farmhouse Culture makes a snack called a “Kraut Crisp.” This is a chip of sauerkraut and corn, and it comes in dill pickle-flavor. Eating them brings me right back to the whole “here have some carob, it’s just like chocolate” era, when things in health food stores tasted like, well, the health food store.
Turkey Hill Dill Pickle Pork Rinds are the usual around where I live in Virginia, and are very good. And a fistful of Southern Recipe Small Batch Spicy Dill Pork Rinds is what sparked this whole conversation, although, I think the company forgot to put “pickle” on the label, but they certainly taste like they are pickle flavored and they’re solid.
Chips that taste like pickles, however, are really just a natural extension of the classic salt-and-vinegar category. After all, pickle brine is salt and vinegar. Of course, the moment that folks put that together, pickle juice brined pork chops and fried chicken started showing up everywhere. Pickle juice gives a mysterious kick to the no-longer-a-secret sauce at Shake Shack. It is the je ne sais quoi in the delicious Bloody Mary at Mission District institution, Elixir, in San Francisco. At the Lucky Pickle Dumpling Company in Manhattan, they pull a pickle-flavored soft serve ice cream, studded with pickle chips.
Pickle juice, pickles, pickle flavoring: it’s suddenly everywhere and is unescapable.
At Sonic, the pickle juice slushie is, so far, a limited engagement. Scott Uehlein, Sonic’s vice president of product innovation and development, told me that his “culinary team took a deep dive in the Austin area trying different fountain and frozen products at snow cone stands and we saw tigers blood, Bahama mama and then pickle juice.” Interesting, in this context, this is the only pickle thing that I’ve found that leans away from dill pickles, and towards the sweeter bread-and-butter variety.
“Because our slush is sweet to start off with, we knew we had to go with something more sweet and sour to incorporate the flavor,” said Uehlein.
Response had been “extremely positive,” and I’m hoping that the flavor sticks around long enough for me to get another one and bring it home so I can drop in a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey.
The biggest surprise came out of KFC. I did not expect much from their new “pickle flavored chicken.” One bite into this fried chicken doused in what seems to be a thickened pickle brine, but really, for all I know, was simply a jar of pickle chips tipped over my chicken, led to a hurricane of praise. It is fantastic. (Sadly, I couldn’t get any details about the process, since no one from the chain’s parent company, Yum! Brands, would return my messages.)
What, however, is going on? Why the explosion of pickle flavors? And while I like many of these products, no matter how gimmicky, I still can’t help but wish that people would leave the humble pickle alone. Or, at least, let it be a pickle again.
There is some hope: McClure’s is up to about 10,000 jars of their delicious pickles a day. Joe McClure told me “growing means more of everything: cash, employees, space, travel, and automation. It’s a never-ending ride. Maintaining our supply chain and relationships with our ingredient providers have been key to improved quality. Also, process is important that we’re making the product the same way each time.”
But he thinks we’re not actually at peak pickle with even more pickled-flavored items soon coming to the market. What’s going on? McClure chalks this up to an increasing interest in fermentation and its supposed related health benefits. (I credit this trend to author Sandor Katz and the popularity of his book, The Art of Fermentation.)
For McClure, it sounds like the future might be in the pickle itself. He didn’t say he’d be the one doing it, but he predicted that “we’ll also see pickles being delivered in packages outside of the standard glass jar and more in vehicles like foil snack packs for more convenience. That’s one area the pickle category has lacked: convenience.”
Pickle for pickle’s sake—that will be refreshing. Until we get there, pass me the pickle-flavored chips, fried chicken and slushies.