Let's talk about pickles, one of the most ingenious culinary inventions in human history. People have been crafting a wide variety of pickled products for centuries. Just about every culture has some form of pickle, from the extensive collection of chutney varieties in India to the Eastern European pickled cucumbers that have long been favorites in the cultural mish-mash of America.
The word "pickle" is a bit mysterious. The farthest back etymologists have been able to trace it is to a medieval Dutch word "pekel", which itself is just a word meaning "pickle". Whatever the case, the concept behind pickling has remained the same for well over 1000 years. A pickle, in the broadest sense, is an edible item preserved in a brine, meaning a solution of water and salt. That's not to say that a cucumber left to sit in a saltwater bath will come out palatable. In order to produce a tasty pickle, some other elements will have to come to the primordial soup of preservation that is brine.
In the United States the most commonly pickled food is the humble cucumber. Immigrants from all over the world have brought their particular take on this treat to our shores for hundreds of years. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that there were pickles on the Mayflower, though they probably would have been of the Polish-influenced ogorek variety that eschews the use of vinegar and depends solely on salt brine and yeast fermentation to pickle the cucumber. Ogoreki are extremely versatile, able to take on just about any herb or spice with which they share the brine.
One of the most popular types of pickled cucumber in the States is the Kosher pickle brought to America by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the 19th century. These simple but tasty pickles get most of their flavor from a generous addition of garlic to the brine. The variation that also includes dill has been a particular favorite, especially as a hamburger condiment.
Though the term "pickle" often refers to the pickled cucumber in the United States and Canada, there are so many other pickled foods from all over the world. Sauerkraut is cabbage that is shredded and lacto-fermented just like traditional pickled cucumbers. It has been a staple of German cuisine for a very long time, enhancing everything from sausage to slaw with its characteristic bite.
Fans of sushi know that the meal isn't complete without gari, the thin shreds of sweet pickled ginger served as a palate cleanser in between different kinds of nigiri. Pickles are indeed an elegant way to prepare the tongue for new flavors without corrupting them with the last dish, especially using vinegar-treated pickles.
Pickles also have a number of health benefits. They contain a decent amount of Vitamin K, which helps the body in a wide range of ways from maintaining bone mass, aiding in healthy clotting and acting as a powerful antioxidant in the liver.
Of all the unusual but amazing inventions in culinary history, none have the allure of the pickle. At once humble and sophisticated, the products of this unique process are a common bond between cultures (and meals).