Do you have any New Year’s resolutions? Drink more? Philander? Eat shittier food? Good ideas all!
Especially this “eat shittier food,” because you know what I love? What I have always loved? I love those cheap hamburger dill slices they put on top of hamburgers at virtually every fast food joint in the country. I’ve worked at a couple of those awful “bistros” (the early 90’s midwestern equivalent of upscale casual) where they serve the typical American city menu of burgers, grilled chicken, fajitas, caesars, a handful of pastas, and maybe a few atrocities that the “chef” (glorified kitchen manager) thought up on his own. Those kind of pickles usually make their appearance in places like these as a garnish atop the hideously wilted shred of green leaf, right alongside the crunchy pink tomato slice. I’d say they’re generally the most edible things on the premises. The diners may love it when their chicken fettucine alfredo is delivered with a flourish by a dude with a secret barbiturate habit and at least one venereal disease, but it don’t look so appetizing when you pull the pre-grilled chicken strips out of a little plastic baggie, where they were placed three days ago, and toss them with the equally old pre-boiled pasta, canned chopped garlic, and pre-shredded parmesan. The pickles are clean and pristine.
I’d always assumed these pickles were just quick pickled: tossed in a vinegar bath with some kind of calcium-based crisping agent and canned. Au contrair! They are in fact industrially produced in the hippest, most self-consciously artisanal method of 21st century food faddism: fermentation. The USDA does a ton of research on vegetable fermentation in order to devise and modify regulations for the fermented pickle industry. Artisan pickle producers: you have been found out! Your $10 pickle quarts will be a thing of the past when trendy foodies everywhere wake up and smell the lactic fermentation on their Wendy’s hamburgers. Although, it should be obvious to everyone by now that there is no earthly reason why a quart of pickles should cost $10.
Of course, Food Services of America will never be able to slap the label “small batch” on the sides of their white, five-gallon pickle buckets since they typically ferment in 30,000 to 40,000 liter tanks. But what disqualifies them from the label “artisanal”?
See those? Those are are the open-air, wood fermentation vats at Mt Olive Pickle Company, the largest independent pickle producer on the United States. Looks old world—artisan even. Of course they go and junk up the final product with corn syrup and yellow dye and Splenda. In fact, they proudly let you know on the website that they were the first food processor in the US to use high fructose corn syrup way back in 1969. In any case, shouldn’t the small-batch, artisan pickle cost less than the Mount Olive pickle since it doesn’t have polysorbate 80 or yellow #5? That stuff doesn’t grow on trees you know.
What’s nuts is that the research done by the USDA at their Agricultural Research Station in North Carolina, a lot of it in conjunction with the Mount Olive Pickle Company, has led them to the conclusion that vegetable fermentation is really, exceptionally safe. So safe that those five gallon pickle buckets aren’t even pasteurized. Sandor Katz likes to quote a USDA microbiologist named Fred Breidt as saying that: “There has never been a documented case of foodborne illness from fermented vegetables. Risky is not a word I would use to describe vegetable fermentation.” Whoa!
Actually though, there was the older California woman, first generation immigrant of Southeast Asian descent, who nearly killed both herself and her husband by leaving a bowl of tofu sitting on the counter in some chicken stock for a week, then eating it. Apparently, she had been preparing that recipe her whole life and this was the first time she had any problem. So even that risky-sounding procedure is usually just fine.
Leaving a fermented pickle fanatic to wonder: if fermentation is so safe and easy, why don’t more restaurants around here serve house-made sour pickles, rather than the usually painfully acetic and otherwise unexceptional little quick pickles that they so often do? I honestly don’t know. After reading this article in the Oregonian where Jason French and Ben Meyer claim that the state essentially forbids restaurants from fermenting their own vegetables, I got curious and did a little research.
I called the Oregon Department of Agriculture and asked them and they said nay: if they did regulate restaurants, which they largely do not, acidified foods are lightly regulated. So I called the county health department. Indeed, the old grouch on the line informed me, you can pour cold brine on vegetables and put it in the walk-in, and keep it there indefinitely.
I said that I didn’t think vegetables would ferment at walk-in temperatures. She insisted they would. I said that, maybe they would, but it would take a long time. She said that to do it otherwise would require a variance, and she made it clear that I didn’t want to try to get a variance. I asked how I could get a variance, and she gave me the number for a woman at the State Food Program. Aha! The state!
So I called Erica at the state. She said that yes, you can ferment vegetables in a restaurant, in the normal way, at room temperature, and then store them indefinitely. The people at the county are confused. She said that she would get on the line with them and set them straight.
So diners, chefs, restaurateurs, I removed the obstruction to the floodgates; you may now proceed with the tsunami of proper pickling. You’re welcome.