Deli and Pickles – A Love Affair

BY: Joan Ginsberg, social media marketing specialist

New dills.

New dills.

The first week in February is “Shape Up With Pickles Time” (no, I did NOT make that up), and what better food to discuss on a Jewish deli blog than pickles? We’ll just skip the “shape up” part. 😉

Every lover and eater of Jewish deli food knows that it doesn’t matter if you prefer corned beef, pastrami or tongue on a sandwich – what really matters is that they are all served with a slice of heaven called a pickle.

You might ask – like Tevye did in the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof – when did this tradition get started? My answer is the same as Tevye’s – I don’t know. Neither does anyone else, it seems.

The pickle – more properly a pickled cucumber – has been around since at least 2400 BC, according to the New York Food Museum, and their health benefits were praised by Aristotle in 850 BC.  When the Israelites left Egypt in their wandering quest for Caanan, they bemoaned the loss of the pickled cucumbers they had enjoyed.

Eastern European Jews, who immigrated to the USA in large numbers in the latter part of the 19th century, brought their dietary habits with them, and one of those habits was eating black or dark bread with pickles. It is only reasonable that when those food traditions began to expand to the masses through deli restaurants, they included the pickles that were also commonly manufactured by Jewish immigrants.

Today, only a small number of Jewish delis exist when compared to 100 years ago. But those that remain still serve pickles with their sandwiches. In the USA, dill pickles are preferred to sweet pickles by a roughly 2 to 1 margin, and dill is what you will find in any respectable deli.

What may differ – often by geography – is what kind of pickle the deli uses. In Detroit, our home city, there are “old dills” or “new dills”. On the east coast, these same pickles are called “sour” and “half sour”. We have seen them called “ripe” or “green” in Cleveland. All have been barrel cured, the old (sours or ripe) longer than new (halves or green). Some delis use both and will offer you a choice, but many restaurants – especially outside of the older east and midwest markets -don’t use a barrel cured pickle at all. Their pickles are cured with vinegar, and do taste quite a bit different than a barrel cured pickle.

Besides manufacturing Sy Ginsberg’s Corned Beef, United Meat & Deli also acts as a distributor of certain deli-related items to our customers. Naturally, that includes pickles. UMD sells pickles made by Hermann Pickle Farms in Garrettsville, Ohio. We think they make the best food-service pickle available. My personal favorite is Dick’s Perky Pickle – a horseradish dill without equal.

The next time you enjoy a selection from your favorite deli, pay attention to the pickle. 

What’s your favorite – sour or half sour (old or new)? Tell us in the comments.