PITTSBURGH -- When Peter Piper picked that peck of pickled peppers, he probably got Pickle Packers International to promote these preserved and pasteurized palate pleasers that are now provocatively pre-empting pooped-out party pickings like popcorn and peanuts.
At least, that's what they're doing this week, which the PPI has declared as International Pickle Week, in celebration of what it calls "the world's most humorous vegetable."
Here in Pittsburgh, of course, pickles have always been serious business. Henry J. Heinz began what is now a giant, international food business in 1869 in a little town just up the Allegheny River and among his first offerings were Sour Spiced Gherkins, Sour Mixed Pickles and Chow Chow Pickles. The ketchup didn't come until a few years later.
A marketing genius who understood the value of a good promotion, Heinz had a small green pickle charm embossed with the company's name designed in 1889. Over one million of them were distributed free at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and helped make pickles synonomous with the Heinz name.
At Heinz U.S.A. headquarters today, pickle pins are there for the taking at the reception desk. They have even assumed a political role, becoming a symbol for Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), who buys his supplies from the company as each campaign rolls around.
Pickles and politicians go a lot farther back, however. Cleopatra used them as a health and beauty aid, Julius Caeser believed them to be restoratives, and Amerigo Vespucci was a pickle dealer in Seville before embarking on more notable adventures.
Even Thomas Jefferson sang the praises of the pickle. "On a hot day in Virginia," he wrote, "I know of nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of that aromatic jar below stairs in Aunt Sally's cellar."
By the 19th century, housewives were more than happy to have commercial packers like the fledgling Heinz company take over some of the chore of preserving the bounty of the summer garden.
Those first offerings by Heinz were joined later by new products such as Preserved Sweet Gherkins, Preserved Sweet Mixed Pickles, Hamburger Slices, Spiced Pickle Chips, Fresh Cucumber Pickles and, what has grown to be this country's favorite variety, the dill pickle.
Americans eat about nine pounds of pickles per person per year, almost double what they consumed 25 years ago. Dill pickles head shoppers' lists, sweet pickles and pickle relishes are next in line, with pickled peppers -- both hot and sweet -- gaining ground.
Twenty-six billion pickles were packed last year, in 36 basic varieties, under hundreds of brand names.
Part of the increase in consumption may be accounted for by the growing popularity of a pickle as a good "nosh." It is a low-calorie alternative to dips and chips as a good-sized dill pickle has only about 15 calories (though they are high in sodium). Although traditionally served with sandwiches or hamburgers, pickles are being sold now in movie theaters, in ball parks as "chilly dillys" and on popsicle sticks as "picklesicles."
The handsome, iron-bound oak barrels found in grocery stores around the turn of the century where pickles could be bought, "two for a nickle," have been replaced in the supermarket by pickles sealed individually in plastic pouches with a little of their own brine, ideal for purchasing as a quick snack.
Besides their popularity as snacks, however, pickles are finding their way into recipes for soups, salads, marinades and appetizers. According to Pickle Packers International, here are some of the more inventive ways to use pickles:
Spice up a Bloody Mary or a Peppered Vodka with a miniature hot pickled pepper.
Core large dill pickles and pack the centers with a mixture of farmer's cheese, minced sun-dried tomatoes or olives, minced parsley and a little tomato paste. Chill overnight, slice and arrange on a lettuce-lined tray.
Use thin dill pickle strips and smoked salmon bits rolled up with rice in seaweed for a novel sushi.
Marinate London broil in a mixture of dill pickle liquid, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper.
Make a Scandinavian-style salad of diced potato, beets, apples, dill pickles and herring bits bound with a mustard-spiked mayonnaise and garnished with fresh dill.
Alongside your ceviche of lime-marinated sea scallops, serve finely chopped pickled pimiento and jalapenåo peppers, chopped fresh onion and tomato, and a sparkling of chopped fresh coriander.
Pickles, with all their possibilities and permutations, hold such an honored place in American gastronomy that in the 1970s Heinz even commissioned a group of Pittsburgh poets to write paeans to the pickle, along with an original "Pickle Suite" composed by Robert Bourdreau, founder and conductor of the American Waterways Wind Symphony.
Poet Sara Henderson Hay might have spoken for a lot of us when she wrote:
Oh savory relish, guaranteed
To waken, with the greatest speed,
A palate dull or fickle,
Accept our praise: for sour, for sweet,
Garnish of salad, boon to meat,
The condiment which, I repeat,
Makes even the humblest snack complete --
PICKLE POCKETS (About 2 dozen appetizers)
This is an adaptation of a recipe from the Heinz test kitchens.
2 cups finely grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
Dash cayenne pepper
Dill or sweet pickles (enough to cut into spears 2 1/2 long)
Mix cheese and butter well. Using pastry blender, cut in flour and cayenne pepper. Divide into 2 balls. Chill.
Roll each ball to 1/8-inch thickness on floured board. Cut into rectangles of 2 1/2 inches by 2 inches. Wrap each pickle strip in dough, sealing ends well. Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes.
Per pocket: 87 calories, 3 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 19 mg cholesterol, 244 mg sodium.
PICKLE GAZPACHO (6 servings)
This low-cal, refreshing soup from the Pickle Packers International would be ideal for a hot summer's day.
2 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1/2 cup sweet fresh cucumber pickles
2 tablespoons chopped chives
2 tablespoons sweet pickle liquid
Fresh chopped oregano
Combine all ingredients, then blend half of the mixture in a blender or food processor until ingredients are finely chopped. Repeat with remaining half. Pour into bowl. Chill thoroughly and serve in chilled bowls.
Per serving: 50 calories, 1 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, .3 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 328 mg sodium.
KOSHER DILLS (Makes 6 to 7 pints)
This is a standard recipe for fresh-pack kosher dills. Clip and save it for the day the farmers' markets start offering baskets of pickling cucumbers and it's time to try your hand at putting up your own pickle supply.
4 pounds of 4-inch pickling cucumbers
14 cloves garlic, split
1/4 cup pickling salt
2 3/4 cups distilled white vinegar
3 cups water
14 heads fresh dill
Wash cucumbers and cut in half lengthwise.
Combine garlic, salt, vinegar and water and heat to boiling. Remove garlic and place 4 halves into each clean jar, then pack cucumbers, adding 2 heads dill and 4 peppercorns.
Pour hot vinegar solution over cucumbers to within 1/2 inch of top, making sure vinegar solution covers cucumbers. Cap each jar at once.
Process for 10 minutes in boiling-water bath.
Per pickle: 4 calories, 0 gm protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium.
Anne Mullin Burnham is Special Projects Director of the Pittsburgh-based International Poetry Forum and is passionate about pickles and poetry.