Last October (2018) we were lucky enough to take a short family holiday to the USA and it was a pickled cucumber experience I had whilst in America that inspired me to write this post.
Now, this article isn't going to be a history lesson on pickled cucumbers in America nor is it a "how-to" make pickled cucumbers (here's an old long-winded video to watch if you want to know how I make them) rather it's simply my thoughts, observations, and story on fermented or pickled cucumber culture in general.
We happened to get the opportunity to go to California as a family on the back of a "business trip" of mine that required me to visit YouTube Spaces in LA. This trip was sponsored by Creator Queensland (a QLD Govt initiative) and under the invite of YouTube due to the recent success I've had regarding my Self Sufficient Me YouTube Channel. I was able to have a personalised tour around the YouTube studios in LA and the purpose of this tour was to help with my own creator development, networking, etc.
Anyway, the last time I had been to the States was in 1991. That too was for business reasons as a stopover before traveling onwards to the Western Sahara Desert where I served with the Army on operations for 11 months as part of an Australian contingent for the UN.
On my brief stays in Hawaii and Miami Florida, I experienced my first taste of American culture (on American soil) – it was different – and I enjoyed it. As a young fella, coming from a small Australia to a big America I was shocked by the amount of choice there was when it came to everything – especially food. Even the fast food places I was familiar with like KFC and McDonalds had at least twice the product range than Australian stores.
Nevertheless, at that time I was hesitant to try anything out of the ordinary so at McDonald's, for example, I chose food I knew like a Big Mac with pickles. Back then, I couldn't have McDonald's without getting a burger with pickled cucumber on it and I still can't. I know there are people that absolutely hate McDonald's pickles on burgers, well, give'em to me because I just love'em!
Fast forward 28 years and with a much older head on my shoulders and a refined extensive very keen interest in fresh food, I was back in the USA and able to properly appreciate the good culture of fermented pickled cucumbers. Or, any food really, because these days I can't get enough of "different" and trying something new to me especially whilst traveling excites me greatly!
The first meal we had after getting to our accommodation in San Francisco was at Fog Harbor Fish House and the mains were served with a fermented pickle on the side. Boy, was this the best start to a USA holiday a man could get!? I quickly found out that pickles (ie pickled cucumbers) were often added as a side to main meals or as appetisers whether one asked for it or not as is the tradition over in the States – a point that evaded me on my 1991 visit. By the way, I highly recommend Fog Harbor Fish House the food, service, and setting were outstanding.
It seemed like we landed in pickle heaven. It also seems like the USA was partly founded on fermentation as Americans are super proud of fermented beverages and foods like pickles and sourdough bread. I have to say, Nina (my wife) and I aren't strangers to the art of bread making – we certainly savour a good sourdough loaf and understand why these types of bread are "good for us" or at least better than ordinary supermarket stuff.
However, we both were a little perplexed at the fuss over these famous sourdoughs showcased nearly everywhere we went such as Boudin Bakery until we actually tried some… Oh wow! So that is what real sourdough bread tastes like! We had no idea it was that bloody good! We regularly buy sourdough bread in Australia and have attempted making it also but never have I tasted anything as good as the sourdoughs in the USA.
Those sour buns with the crusty outer shell and fluffy, soft, centres are a taste sensation – combine it with a local chowder or chille bean stew and I could eat it till I burst!
Talking about overindulging when you're on holiday you typically have no choice but to eat out and often fast food is the go, but we did try and steer clear of what we knew and endeavored to find different places to experience. One of these fast food resturants that we did enjoy eating at was IN-N-OUT Burger although due to it's popularity it wasn't that easy to get "in."
Compared to McDonalds IN-N-OUT Burger restaurants seems insignificant at only around 340 locations in the USA, however, the growing patronage and customer loyalty commanded by this burger chain must be worrying to a corporate giant like Maccas. Anecdotally, wherever we went McDonald's was deserted whilst any nearby IN-N-OUT Burger restaurant was packed to the rafters often with a line out the door and down the street!
The main difference I saw between the two burger chains was IN-N-OUT Burgers offered complementary pickled chillies and Maccas didn't. Seriously, that's not the reason why I think IN-N-OUT is killing Maccas (that's another story) but it is true that IN-N-OUT does supply small yellow pickled chillie/peppers for free as a condiment if you wish to have one or more… I ate several and it makes my mouth water just writing about it. You'd never see a tray-full of help-yourself pickled chillies next to the salt, pepper, sauce, straws, and serviettes in an Australian fast food joint but you do in the USA – God bless their cotton socks.
We finished our US holiday with a visit to Disneyland and appropriately I was able to finish on a high with a large pickled cucumber purchased from one of the many stalls that sold them on ice in single-use plastic bags around the Disney Parklands. I'm certain this fermented pickle helped me survive the more than enough stomach wrenching rides my family made me go on.
Well, if pickled cucumber juice (pickle juice) can help to almost immediately relieve cramping professional footballers I'm sure this wonder product helped me get through a theme park even if I did still lose my reading glasses (I do hope they never hit anyone as they flew out of my top pocket during the roller coaster ride).
There sure is more to a pickled cucumber than just a great tangy taste or beneficial gut bacteria and whilst they may not have originated in the USA, Americans have pretty much made them their own – so they should.
There's a unique flavour to fermented foods done the old way that can't be replicated or the process fast-tracked otherwise the taste is simply below par. Allowing lactobacilli, living yeasts, and other beneficial microbes to slowly shape the flavour and texture of the food by the process of fermentation really does boggle the mind.
And, I often think about those early foodie pioneers who had the courage to taste and experiment with this way of creating food to refine the recipes and perfect the techniques our generation now enjoy. Leaving food to fester in a vessel for days or weeks on end and then eat it is kind of counter-intuitive and against our natural instincts but I'm sure glad someone started it, or should I say cultured it!
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