For years the American palate has led a rather undistinguished search for the sour. In modern times — since the advent of deep freeze refrigeration, vacuum packaging, and a supply chain that provides the same bevy of vegetables regardless of weather or season — our idea of a pickle has barely moved beyond the drab medallions that inhabit the upper layer of a Big Mac. Perhaps the kosher snap of a stork-delivered Vlasic dill, or a modern bag of deli kraut went a step beyond, but in the realm of fermentation and pickling, we are far from enlightened. Or at least we were.
Lately, pickles have become the rage, in correlation with the stratospheric popularity of charcuterie plates, which in turn have ridden the wave of all things pork and fat combined. Just as the concept of a pickle has recently moved beyond the notion of a sour cucumber spiked with garlic and dill, the various accoutrements of a standard wooden board of cured meat have eclipsed whole grain mustard and little French cornichons. It’s a brave new world in the land of fermentation, and the full gamut of animal and vegetable is getting its due.
Like many down-home pursuits that have made a comeback of late, we must thank Sean Brock and the advent of Husk for much of this resurgence. Early on in its development, it was clear that traditional preservation, and by extension pickling, would play an important role in the taste profiles of Charleston’s now most popular restaurant. Brock grew up in the Appalachian mountains with a grandmother who kept a bubbling crock of fermenting vegetables in the basement at all times. For her, it was a hedge against lean times. For him, it’s a taste of home. So it was no wonder that his repertoire expanded to include all sorts of fermentation, from a thousand pounds of peppers rendered into hot sauce inside old whiskey barrels to baby beets destined for a farmer’s plate. The fact that such delicacies harkened to an older order of Southern cooking and fell effortlessly alongside country ham and pigskin was a mere bonus. These were the trappings of a place beyond the stove — they spoke of history.
Of course, every cuisine has its traditional aspects of fermentation. Perhaps the process finds easy company next to sausage-making because both processes follow a similar lineage. Both extend the harvest through the use of micro-bacterial magic, tiny microbes harnessed by the cook to overwhelm the bad bugs, and thus render food free from spoilage for an exceptionally long time. So we see it at Cypress, where Craig Deihl pairs heaps of spicy nduja alongside the sour vegetable feast. It has traveled up King Street to the new darlings as well. Kevin Johnson goes so far as to line jars of pickled food in the niches above his open kitchen at the Grocery, as if they were the crown jewel of the cook’s effort. Mike Lata’s reimagining of seafood at the Ordinary certainly wouldn’t be complete without the requisite offering of pickled shrimp on the raw bar menu, but even in a restaurant devoid of lard in these waning days of lardcore, he serves a preserved chutney of last fall’s final green tomatoes slathered on fried fish sandwiches, a testament to the art’s versatility.
To be fair, many of these preparations do not involve the long wait of grandma’s stoneware crock. Often chefs use shortcuts to achieve similar effect, offering “refrigerator pickles,” as in the case of traditional Charleston pickled shrimp, that “pickle” in an acidic medium of vinegar or lemon juice. A ceviche or escabeche might qualify on the outside edge of such technique, even if we might not stretch to call it a pickle.
On a recent visit to The Lot, the recently opened, buttoned-down, and high-spirited locavore mecca out on James Island, I ordered a spicy Bloody Mary. Perched on top was a local green bean, pickled. It was surrounded by pieces of cauliflower, pickled. There was a tender baby carrot hiding in there, also pickled. I found pickled Jerusalem artichokes at the bottom of my kale soup and pickled celery gracing a well-seared barrelfish filet. Delicious, yes, but also a harbinger of things to come: a thousand mason jars about town, sealed and ready for action.