This past May, I spent a few nights at a carnival in Woodbury Heights, New Jersey, with my dad and nephews. While trying to decide between cheese fries and funnel cake, I heard a call that demanded my attention: “Get your pickle on a stick! Pickle on a stick for only three dollars!” As the line for this carnival delicacy grew longer, I became more and more perplexed. To clarify: It’s a pickle. On a stick.
What, exactly, is the appeal? I thought.
“When it’s really hot out, they’re better than ice cream,” says Peggy Grodinsky, a writer and editor for Maine’s Portland Press Herald. Grodinsky wrote a piece about pickle on a stick in the summer of 2020, after trying one at Snell Family Farm in Buxton, Maine. “I’m not dissing ice cream, which I love. It’s just that ice cream fools you into thinking it’s light, when it’s actually made with milk, cream and, often, eggs. Many pickles are made with vinegar, and they just feel so much lighter—even invigorating—when you’re eating them.”
Pickles themselves are undoubtedly having a moment, with pickling workshops available from San Francisco to Billings, Montana, to the Smithsonian Institution’s own recent Folklife Festival, and gourmet pickle shops opening in cities such as Midland, Texas, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For many, the allure of cucumbers preserved in brine or vinegar is undeniable. They’re crunchy, thirst-quenching and packed with sodium that can help keep you hydrated on a sweltering summer day. They can also be messy.
“I think there’s a pragmatic argument for pickles on sticks,” says Rod Phillips, a historian at Ottawa’s Carleton University whose specialties include food and wine. “You don’t get your fingers covered in brine or juice, and it makes them more manageable, especially in informal eating situations like carnivals.”
Plus, as Grodinsky says, “it’s fun.”
Although the exact origins of the pickle are unknown, most food historians believe that these salted and brined vegetables date back to the days of the ancient Mesopotamians, around 2400 B.C.E. Fast-forward to the 15th century, and pickles were already arriving in the New World thanks to Italian merchant Amerigo Vespucci, who before his days as an explorer was known as the “Pickle Dealer,” supplying trans-Atlantic ships with preserved meat and vegetables—including pickles—to help prevent sailors from developing scurvy. By the 19th century, pickles were considered a status symbol among middle- and upper-class British households, the residents of which used pickle castors (ornamental jars made of glass and decorated metal, with matching tongs or a fork) to display and serve their well-preserved produce.
Then there’s the kosher dill pickle, a cucumber fermented in garlic, salt and spices, which has a history all its own. “Ashkenazi Jews came to the U.S. in enormous numbers from both Central and Eastern Europe, starting in the 1880s through to about the 1920s,” says Liz Alpern, co-founder of Brooklyn’s The Gefilteria, a unique food venture aimed at reimagining Eastern European Jewish cuisine. “We’re talking in the millions. It’s the Jews who really brought this style of pickling with them and popularized it in the United States.” Pickling vegetables had been a way of survival in countries like Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, from which many of these Ashkenazi Jews emigrated. The bulk of them settled in New York City. “The Jewish deli then brought all of these Ashkenazis together in an American context,” says Alpern.
Pickles were an inherent staple in deli culture, prominently featured on plates or wrapped in sandwich paper as a complementary part of the meal. “A pickle refreshes your taste buds,” says Alpern, “So each bite of a pastrami sandwich, with a bite of pickle in between, can be as exciting as your first.”
Today, pickles are a mainstay from delis to diners, and festivals celebrate the beloved brined veggie from Pittsburgh to Beverly Hills, California. Though tangy and salty, pickles come in a wide variety of types, including sweet, sour, thinly sliced bread and butter pickles, and gherkins, or pickled baby cucumbers. Pickles across the U.S. are as varied as the country itself.
In some Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi movie theaters, pickles are served in wax paper bags straight from the jar, a concession food believed to have originated with German immigrants. Meanwhile, in the Mississippi Delta region, some pickle enthusiasts stuff their dill pickles with peppermint sticks, a tradition that soul food scholar Adrian Miller says likely originated “in the 1940s and ’50s with kids just messing around.” According to Miller, local corner stores always had big jars of pickled foods on the counter such as eggs, pigs’ feet and giant cucumbers. The latter were “really cheap,” he says, “as were the peppermint sticks. They would just push the stick into the soft part of the pickle and then let it dissolve. It was all about the sweet and sour combo.”
Kool-Aid pickles, a.k.a. “Koolickles,” which are made by simply soaking dill pickles in brine that includes powdered Kool-Aid mix, is another Delta specialty. For many, these fruity and colorful (e.g., bright red if you’re using cherry Kool-Aid mix, purple if you’re using grape) pickled cucumbers are an acquired taste, though one that’s still readily available at gas stations throughout the region. Over the years, they’ve also made their way to various other pockets across the U.S. “I think the spread of them first occurred during the Great Migration,” says Miller, though beyond South, “they never really caught fire anywhere else.” (That is, before becoming a TikTok trend in 2021).
This “spirit of innovation,” as Miller calls it, also led to treats like pickle popsicles, perhaps the closest thing to pickle on a stick aside from the delicacy itself, and fried pickles, which first rose to prominence in the 1960s at the Duchess Drive-In in Atkins, Arkansas. At the time, the restaurant sat right across the highway from the Atkins Pickle Company. Although the Duchess closed later that same decade, fried pickles have since become an American culinary staple.
While it’s unclear when the pickle on a stick became carnival cuisine, the treat has definitely joined the ranks of food-on-a-stick favorites, including corn dogs, candied apples and deep-fried Snickers. It’s a trend that can be traced back nearly a century to 1927, when U.S. inventor Stanley S. Jenkins applied for a patent for a “combined dipping, cooking and article holding apparatus” because, as he later noted, foods such as bananas, hot dogs, strawberries and even cheese just taste better “when impaled on sticks.”
Whichever way you slice it, the pickle has a loyal following. And for many, eating this juice-filled delight—hands-free in the heat of summer—just makes it all that more enticing.
“It’s a bit goofy and nostalgic, eating food on a stick,” says Grodinsky, “but with a pickle, it’s refreshing, too.”