The History of the Southern Pickle: A Sweet Story

How Mrs. Fisher’s Sweet Southern Pickle Came to Be

Pickles are a culinary delight that have existed in one form or another for centuries, making appearances in the diets of cultures all across the world dating back even to civilizations as old as Ancient Egypt. According to the New York Food Museum’s “Pickle History Timeline”, while it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact origins of the pickle, many scholars believe that Ancient Mesopotamians, members of the first great civilization in history, pickled vegetables around 2400 B.C. The timeline also mentions the use of pickles by great historical figures such as Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Napoleon. 

Pickled veggies are a treat which come in many different variations depending on their culture of origin. For instance, in Korean culture, for thousands of years folks have preserved cabbage by allowing it to ferment in pots underground, creating the famously delicious and aromatic delicacy known as kimchi. Yet another example are Kosher dill pickles, which are cucumbers preserved with dill in a garlicky vinegar-based brine, originating from Jewish culture in New York City. Travel back across the world to Vietnam, and you’ll find pickled carrots and daikon (“do chua”) used in a multitude of dishes. However, possibly the most unique variation in all of pickle-dom is that of the sweet southern pickle. While most other recipes call for the use of savory ingredients and heavy spices to create a tangy, salty brine, Southerners in the early United States did what they are famous for doing with all sorts of foods: they made them sweet. In Mrs. Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook entitled What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking, there is an entire section devoted solely to pickling, and it begins with the classic sweet cucumber pickle, cured in a vinegar brine in an earthen jar and then coated in layer after layer of granulated sugar before being doused in a thick, sweet syrup. Love them or hate them, variations of sweet pickles can be found all throughout the modern United States in grocery stores. But the presence of this recipe in one of the first published southern-American cookbooks raises a lot of perplexing questions: why, when every other culture seemingly agreed that pickles are a savory food, did southerners in the U.S. decide to go their own route and sweeten them up? Who introduced this idea, and how did it become so popular in southern culture? Where did the sweet pickle come from?

The first step towards discerning the origins of these delightfully sweet southern specialties is to look at the sweet pickles we have today, and trace their lineage backwards. In any local grocery store, one can make their way to the pickle aisle and discover the modern sweet pickle, also known as the bread and butter. But are bread and butter pickles truly related to the original sweet southern version from Mrs. Fisher’s book? According to Katie Baker, a doctoral student at Eastern Tennessee State University, bread and butter pickles originated in the early 1900s in a small farming family in Illinois, the Fannings. Omar and Cora Fanning were losing money on wasted cucumbers when they decided to preserve their unused veggies in an especially sweet brine, and created a new culinary treat which took the United States, and especially the South, by storm. But when one compares this original bread and butter recipe as well as its date of origin with Mrs. Fisher’s own sweet pickles, it becomes clear that one is not a direct descendant of the other. The Fannings’ recipe calls for cucumbers to be placed in a brine composed of seven cups of sugar balanced against six cups of vinegar, combined with onions, peppers, and some savory spices. In contrast, Mrs. Fisher’s recipe calls for already-pickled cucumbers to first be cured in granulated sugar for a full day and night before being placed in a brine composed of a full quart of sweet syrup and only one teacup of red wine vinegar. Clearly, there are some discrepancies in the ingredient lists for these two varieties of pickle, and the process for making each version is very different. In addition, Mrs. Fisher’s recipe was published in 1881, which implies that her version originated long before that time, most likely sometime in the early 1800s or earlier. The Fannings’ recipe wasn’t trademarked until 1920, and, despite Ms. Baker’s claim that their recipe is generations old, most likely came after Mrs. Fisher’s. It seems safe to assume that these two varieties of pickles were created independently of one another, one in the Midwest and one in the South. It could even be that the Fannings had southern ancestors who moved to Illinois, bringing the idea of sweet pickles with them from the southern states, and attempted to create their own recipe. Either way, it’s clear that the modern bread and butter pickle of our grocery stores is not the same as the original sweet pickle of the south.

But if bread and butters come from a different recipe, then what was the original sweet pickle recipe, when did it come about, and in what way does its taste differ from those sweet pickles we know today? A PBS article entitled “History in a Jar: the Story of Pickles” by Tori Avery states, “When the English arrived in the New World, they brought their method for creating sweet pickles with vinegar, sugar and spiced syrup.” Although there is no date or added detail attached to this claim, one can clearly see that despite the sweet pickle’s popularity in Southern American culture, the recipe may not have originated in the south, but rather was introduced to that region by another culture: the English. A deep dive into early English cookbooks reveals that the English had their own methods for creating sweeter versions of pickles. The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook, an English cookbook from 1797 written by T. Williams, contains multiple recipes which indicate that Mrs. Fisher’s recipe for sweet pickles may have origins in English cooking practices from the 18th century. In T. Williams’ recipe book, while there doesn’t seem to be a specific recipe for sweet pickles as there is in Mrs. Fisher’s own book, one can find an early recipe for sugar vinegar in the pickling section. The sugar vinegar recipe included in this book involves a full pound of sugar, which is used in combination with water, yeast and isinglass (a type of clarifying jelly) to create a sugary, syrupy vinegar similar to the one used in Mrs. Fisher’s recipe. This recipe and the surrounding recipes in this section of The Accomplished Housekeeper reference many of the same techniques Mrs. Fisher discusses. In the introduction to the pickling section, T. Williams discusses the benefits of investing in a stone jar for pickling, as earthen jars are far less durable. Despite the prevalence of mason jars in southern-American pickling, one only has to look back at Mrs. Fisher’s own recipe to see that she too used earthen jars for her own pickling processes! Suddenly, the origins of her recipes seem to become more and more clearly rooted in English culture. One of the most telltale signs of this comes in the form of a recipe for pickled mangoes. T. Williams describes his method of pickling mangoes as almost identical to the recipe for sweet cucumber mangoes found directly beneath the recipe for sweet pickles in What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking. Both recipes call for the cucumbers to be gutted through a small hole in the side, combined with sliced onions and mustard seed, and then combined with some form of vinegar for preservation and flavor. The similarities between these recipes are uncanny, and clearly indicate a connection between the two. The main difference between them is that T. Williams uses alegar (an ale-based vinegar), while Mrs. Fisher uses the same sweet syrup she described in her sweet pickle recipe. While this may be a large assumption to make, it seems that Mrs. Fisher (or whoever taught her these recipes) may have decided at some point to replace the typical vinegars used in each recipe with a sugar vinegar substitute in order to make the dishes sweet. This would explain why her recipes are so similar to those found in these English cookbooks, only with the addition of syrup.

It would make sense for Mrs. Fisher to have taken these old English recipes and put her own sweet, southern twist on them. English culture obviously had an enormous influence on the beginnings of American food culture, as the first American settlers came from England, and with them came their recipes. Mrs. Fisher was a freed slave, and most likely gained her culinary skills from cooking for large slave-owning families in the South, many of whom most likely had English ancestry and English cookbooks. That would mean that she had access to those English cookbooks as well; she may have even had access to T. Williams The Accomplished Housekeeper! Plus, Southerners in the United States have a long history of taking savory dishes and making them sweet; one great example of this is chicken and waffles, a classic southern dish with savory fried chicken and waffles with sweet, sugary syrup. All of these ideas point to the conclusion that the sweet southern pickle described in Mrs. Fisher’s book is most likely a southern twist on classic pickling, combining the idea with the English recipe for sugar-vinegar. All one can say is, what a pickled web we weave.

Bibliography

  • Williams, T., and John Fuller. The Accomplished Housekeeper, and Universal Cook: Containing All the Various Branches of Cookery … the Various Articles in Candying, Drying, Preserves, and Pickling ; the Preparation of Hams, Tongues, Bacon, and of Made Wines and Cordial Waters ; Directions for Carving, with a Catalogue of the Various Articles in Season Every Month in the Year. Printed for J. Scatcherd, 1797. 
  • Fisher, Abby. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. Woman’s Co-Operative Printing Office, 1881. 
  • “Tonight We’re Going to Pickle Like It’s 1797.” Salisbury House Blog, Salisbury House, 19 Feb. 2022, https://salisburyhouseandgardens.com/2015/08/03/tonight-were-going-to-pickle-like-its-1797/
  • Avey, Tori. “History in a Jar: The Story of Pickles.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 3 Sept. 2014, https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-pickles/
  • Baker, Katie. “Bread and Butter Pickles – East Tennessee State University.” Eastern Tennessee State University, Eastern Tennessee State University, https://www.etsu.edu/cph/documents/bread_and_butter_pickles.pdf

Terebelski, Dana, and Nancy Ralph. “Pickle History Timeline.” New York Food Museum, 2003, http://www.nyfoodmuseum.org/_ptime.htm

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