Picking A Proper Pickle Is No Picnic

There I was, at the Anne Arundel County Fair in Crownsville last week, in a pickle over pickles.

After marvelling at a 133-pound pumpkin and paying homage to the sewing entries as one who can barely sew a button must, TC ended up among four delightful ladies immersed in a topic I can appreciate -- food.


Alice Wilcom and Shirley Zimmerman had driven down from Frederick County to judge the canned goods and award ribbons to the best ones; local fair volunteers Sherry Gunther and Clara Beam were putting in their two cents worth, too, although they weren't judging.

"We always get judges from out-of-county," Mrs. Gunther confided. "They don't know anybody down here."


It was about 3 p.m. when I found them, sitting around a bottle of vinegar and a couple of opened jars of pickled goods. They had been tasting for five hours -- rows and rows of jars of canned vegetables, fruits, sauces and pickles.

They'd already picked a champion canned vegetable (asparagus, packed in vertical rows so precise you'd swear someone glued them to the jar) and fruit (prune-plums, purple as Barney the dinosaur).

And, Mrs. Zimmerman announced sadly, they had decided that "we just didn't have what I call a champion sauce. They were blah."

All that was left to do was pick a perfect pickled food, and they were stuck.

It had come down to the vinegar, beautifully bottled with a long spiral of lemon peel, a spray of dill and a skewer of garlic bulbs; a tomato-pineapple relish; some spiced peaches, and a jar of piccalilli.

The judges sat me down and gave me a taste of each. This was turning into a great assignment.

The peaches, full of the flavor of cloves, were so good that the judges had nearly polished off the whole jar. The piccalilli (a kind of relish) begged for a hot dog. And tomatoes and pineapples might sound awful together, but this concoction, laced with cinnamony spices, was delicious.

I was about ready to sign up for the next training session for fair food judges when the realization hit that these taste-testers had been at it for more than five hours. It's one thing to sample four jars of prize-winning pickled goods and quite another to taste dozens, even hundreds, of jars.


Mrs. Gunther said she once judged 245 jars of pickles at the Frederick County Fair and went home thinking her mouth was permanently puckered. "It was dreadful."

The Maryland State Fair in Timonium recently banned judges from opening canned jars, requiring them to decide on the basis of appearance alone. But these ladies consider that heresy, not a favor. Like books, Mrs. Zimmerman says, a jar of pickles can't be judged by its cover.

"You can have a beautiful pickle, but boy, it can really be bad."

Some jars even they won't taste; "If I open it up and it's fizzing at me or it talks to me, I'm not going to touch it," Mrs. Gunther said. Ditto moldy jams, says Mrs. Zimmerman, and anything else that looks "too terrible bad."

But few fair entries fit that category, which means if 100 jars of strawberry jam are entered, a judge probably will end up tasting 100 jars of strawberry jam.

That's not so bad, Mrs. Wilcom says. "It's those cakes -- they really get to you."


At a fair in Thurmont earlier this summer, she and Mrs. Zimmerman had to taste 14 coconut cakes, 11 red velvet cakes and 10 chocolate cakes, among others.

Now, there's nothing Mrs. Wilcom loves better than a good coconut cake.

But as anyone who has regretted going for that extra slice knows, 14 pieces of coconut cake is way, way too much of a good thing.

Canned foods are much easier to take in large doses -- especially when they're as good as the ones in Anne Arundel's pickled category.

The judges finally decided the vinegar was, far and away, the grand champion of canned goods.

Not only was the flavor mild and touched with just the right hint of the lemon, garlic and dill, "the presentation on this is gorgeous," Mrs. Gunther said.


How whoever entered it got that skewer of lemon and garlic bulbs in the bottle is a mystery we never unraveled.

Now for the reserve champion.

The spiced peaches, scrumptious as they were, were eliminated after Mrs. Wilcom pronounced them "not that pretty in the jar." Indeed, the syrup was a little cloudy.

That left the tomato-pineapple relish and the piccalilli. "We're torn between these two," Mrs. Wilcom said. One looked and tasted as good as the other.

I ventured the opinion that the tomato-pineapple should get the nod because it's so different, a combination of two foods that shouldn't work, but does.

The judges agreed.


It had taken six hours, but the best pickled foods had been picked.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.