I appreciate a good pickle. A pickle that is crisp and firm, that has maybe a little salt, and maybe a little fire. A pickle that lets you know it is there.
While there are a handful of folks who pickle cucumbers in their basements, most of today's pickling work is done in factories. For instance, the 550 acres of cucumbers that Eastern Shoreman Harry Nagel grows in his Federalsburg fields are shipped to the Bloch & Guggenheimer Inc. pickle plant in Hurlock, Md., the Vslasic Foods Inc. plant in Millsboro, Del., and the Mount Olive Pickle Co. in Mount Olive, N.C.
There was a time when pickle-making in Maryland was personal, when eateries either made their own pickles or bought them from local pickle houses like Louis Borshay's operation in East Baltimore or Samuel Luchinsky's factory, which sat on land that is now the Camden Yards baseball stadium.
There was a time, said Seymour Attman, owner of Attman's Delicatessen in East Baltimore, "when people used to get excited when the first crop of cucumbers would arrive from the Eastern Shore." The first cucumbers of the season meant that in a few days there would be a fresh barrel of "half sours," the pickles made by soaking cucumbers in spicy saltwater brine for about seven days.
Attman said his East Lombard Street deli now gets its half sours, dills and full sours from a pickle house in New York. But Attman, who is 68 years old, remembers participating in the pickle-making ritual his father supervised back in the 1940s.
"My father would buy the cucumbers in the old Mash Market," Attman said, using the local pronunciation of the Marsh produce market that once stood at Lombard Street and Market Place in downtown Baltimore. Cucumbers were purchased at the end of the day, Attman said, because that was when vendors who were stuck with a surplus of unsold cukes were willing to cut a deal.
Once the deal was struck, barrels were rolled out, and garlic was smashed. Attman remembers putting heads of garlic in a rolled-up apron and clobbering them with a device that looked like a sledgehammer. The smashed garlic, along with salt, water and a pickling mix formulated by the Baltimore Spice Co. just for Attman's, was tossed in the barrels with the cucumbers.
"Then you would get a cooper to seal up the barrel, like a whiskey barrel, so it wouldn't leak," Attman said. Next, a crew would help cart the barrels to the Baltimore Cold Storage company. There the pickles would sit, with the cold temperature slowing the pickling process, until the pickles were needed at the deli. When the time came, the barrels would be taken to the deli and opened. And then the cured cukes would go on sale.
"If you got bad pickles, soft ones, that meant something was wrong with your mix . . . too much salt, or too much water," Attman said.
He also told me a few terms used in the old pickling trade. A "bloater," he said, was a puffed-up cucumber, a pickle gone bad. "dead green" was a young pickle on its way to becoming a "half-sour." A "full sour," or "New York sour," was a cucumber that had been sitting in brine for almost a month. It was often called a "well-done" in Baltimore.
Many of the pickles now sold in supermarkets are made using processes that either cook the cucumbers or douse them in vinegar. These processes preserve the products' shelf life. Most deli pickles are fermented in a saltwater mixture and are not cooked. The uncooked, saltwater pickles usually have a shorter shelf life, but more defined flavors.
One man who ships "gourmet" pickles around the country has taken the pickling process in a new direction. Zev Dorfman, head of D Z Pickling in Los Angeles, said his kosher pickles are cured in their jars. In a telephone conversation, Dorfman, a native of Romania, said he was relying on a 150-year-old recipe -- saltwater, no vinegar, lots of garlic -- and a modern toll-free number (800 PICKLE 5) to satisfy America's craving for a good crunch.
He puts 4-inch cucumbers in plastic jars, douses them with the pickling mixture, seals the jars and ships them. The cukes pickle as they travel, Dorfman said. He advises his customers to eat a pickle as soon as the shipment arrives. If they like the flavor of the first pickle, they should put the other pickles in the refrigerator to stop the pickling process. But if they want their pickles a little stronger, they should keep the pickle jar at room temperature and allow the pickles to cure longer.
A five-jar package of his pickles costs about $30 when shipped to Maryland, Dorfman said.
Pickles, which are low in calories but high in salt, have long been the source of curious theories. Pickle eaters in California, Dorfman reports, claim that pickle brine has both livened up their salad dressings and their love lives.
Some folks in Baltimore, deli owner Attman said, like to drink the pickle brine because they believe it relieves the pain of arthritis. But Attman believes that too much of a good thing, even a good pickle, can give you problems.
"When I eat too many of those pickles," Attman said, "I get the gout."