Earlier this month, Toronto chef and restaurateur Brock Shepherd boldly joined the cocktail vanguard: he put a $5 “pickle-back shot” on the menu at Burger Bar & Tequila Tavern in Toronto’s Kensington Market. The mixologist had noticed growing chatter about the Jameson-whiskey shot chased by a pickle-brine shooter on food blogs—which ramped up last month after Justin Timberlake tipped a bartender who made him one US$100. Shepherd, who drank pickle juice as a boy, was intrigued, and concocted his own version with Jim Beam bourbon. “If you like hard liquor, it cleanses the palate in an interesting way,” he says.
Some might scoff that the pickle-booze combination is as old as getting pickled itself. But the craving Shepherd is tapping into is of a more recent vintage—made official last week in the New York Observer. “Pickles are the new macaroons,” proclaimed style savant and famed Barneys’ window stager Simon Doonan, referring to the tiny pastel-coloured meringue sandwiches from Ladurée in Paris, which have become as knocked-off as Vuitton bags. The “trendiest and chicest” label in pickles, Doonan noted, is McClure’s, a family-run firm with plants in Brooklyn and Detroit whose piquant product costs $17.50 a jar at Williams-Sonoma.
McClure’s co-owner Bob McClure confirms the explosion in interest among higher-end consumers on the lookout for something new and unique: “Anyone can show up [at a dinner party] with a bottle of wine,” he says. “But taking a jar of local garlic dills shows you’re connected to community.”
It’s a nice symmetry that pickles’ ascension to fashion statement is traceable to the same source that has rendered Mason jars a ubiquitous decor accessory: the locavore movement and its reclamation of the lost arts of preserving. Alison Fryer, the manager of Toronto’s Cookbook Store, reports a huge uptick in interest: “Chefs are doing more of it,” she says. “But so are home cooks.”
Teo Paul, the chef-owner of Toronto’s Union restaurant, sees a shift toward seeking out family recipes and traditions. It’s a badge of culinary authenticity to point out, as his servers do, for instance, that the recipe for the pickles on the $16 house charcuterie plate has been handed down generations from the chef’s grandmother, June Button.
But it’s not just at the high end that pickles are offering a refreshingly sour and salty alternative: one need only look to the runaway success of Bob’s Pickle Pops, a $1.59 pickle-sicle poised for national brand status when a deal with a major distributor is finalized this month. The idea of an icy treat made from pressed pickles and juice originated in Sequin, Tex., where roller-rink owner John Howard has sold frozen pickle brine for years. His cousin David Millar saw bigger potential and the two went into partnership. Four years later, they’re shipping internationally, as far afield as Dubai. (In Canada, the Pickle Pops are available through NoveltyFood.com.)
Children and endurance athletes seeking hydration are their primary markets—for now. The pops were available to the Canadian downhill ski team while training for the 2010 Olympics, Millar notes. And the American Diabetes Association hands them out to participants at its fundraising cycling events. The untapped market is massive, he contends: “There are closet pickle-juice drinkers everywhere.” Pickle-sicles might seem bizarre on first blush, he admits, but the company’s critics have been silenced: “In the beginning the blogs were all saying ‘This is disgusting!’ Now it’s: ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”
Pickles’ new vogue has been greatly abetted by health claims that suggest eating them is as restorative as a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Low in calories (three in a one-ounce pickle), they’re high in fibre, antioxidants, calcium, magnesium, and iron. Their vinegary brine is a celebrated elixir said to boost the immune system, ease digestive disorders and lower blood pressure. New salutary benefits emerge daily. Talk-show host Tyra Banks recently praised pickle juice for its power in alleviating PMS cramps. A Dallas hospital gives them to children whose taste buds have been thrown out of whack by chemotherapy.
McClure, whose line now includes a bottled Bloody Mary mix, views the pickle fanfare not as a trend but the rediscovery of a classic: “People ask ‘Is this a fad?’ But I’ve always seen it as a way of life. Only now it has cultural cachet.” And that means getting pickled doesn’t require a cocktail any more; a $20 jar of status pickles should do the trick.