Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pickled Logic

The New York Times op-ed page had a wonderful piece this week about the history of pickles in America. Reformers and nativists once viewed them as a demon's dinner, unhealthy and dangerous. How, one might ask? Their spicy and sharp flavors made people agitated and emotional, rendering them unfit for democratic society, or so the pickled logic went.

According to the op-ed, food busybodies expressed horror that immigrant mothers fed such an infernal food to their children and even infants. In response, settlement houses, the social services of their day, sought to wean families from their native foods and get them to consume calming dishes like chowder.

Thank God they failed. I love pickles. They are one of my -- indeed America's -- favorite foods. I'm reminded of a classic "All in the Family" episode where Archie nixes the idea of Chinese food at Meatheat and Gloria's wedding, saying he wants something "American, like spaghetti."

A number of years ago, we took a culinary tour of the Lower East Side of Manhattan (throughout the tour, the guide kept saying, "Pretend all these Asian people aren't here and imagine the streets full of Italians, Jews, etc.)" We stopped at a legendary pickle place, one of the last remnants of the Jewish Lower East Side. They had easily a dozen varieties in big plastic barrels. The pickles were sublime, each variety a variation of crisp, brine, dill and garlic. A treat and half.

This story shows how America has changed and stayed the same. We remain hysterical at times about newcomers "failing" to become Americans, but food is no longer a focus. In fact, eating habits are one of the few ethnic characteristics that we encourage and celebrate.

So I guess at least we can be grateful that there's no campaign to ban baba ghanoush and hummus. Progress of a sort.

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