Dill-icious: Kool-Aid pickles
Italians employ an elegant, nuanced term, cucina povera -- literally 'poor cuisine' -- to describe the collection of humble peasant dishes that form the backbone of their many regional cuisines. But to think of cucina povera as merely a set of dishes is to miss the point. It's really a mindset, a determination to extract flavour and texture in the face of deprivation and the paucity ingredients that accompany such hardship, as well as a testimony to our common need, regardless of time, geography, or class, to eat food that tastes good.
But, oh, how the Italians have succeeded, thrived even, under such circumstances. They may well be the most accomplished scavengers on the planet, enjoying a bounty of dandelion and other wild greens, and a plethora of fungi they collect themselves. They're also masters at preparation, having long ago perfected methods of preservation that turn ham into prosciutto, a long-lived culinary feat that actually reaches peak flavour up to two years after slaughter. That's an enduring legacy.
Italians aren't alone, of course. The Thai and Vietnamese also exemplify this genius born of necessity. On the basis of what little I've tasted, I'm keen to add Peruvians to this group, too. We North Americans benefit from another culinary canon driven by the same ethos: soul food. From the limited options available to them, America's slaves and their descendants developed a range of mouthwatering dishes, including fried chicken, biscuits, and, of course, barbecue. I don't know about you, but given the choice between genuine, slow-smoked barbecue and a grilled filet mignon, I'd take the barbecue. Without hesitation.
Of course, we like to think of cucina povera -- or at least the need for it -- as a thing of the past, especially in North America. This is not the case. The foods that define cucina povera may have changed, but not the need, nor the creativity that drives it. For centuries, poor families ate what they grew on their little patch of land, and so cucina povera meant local, seasonal, and organic ingredients because there simply were no other options. In an ironic twist, such foods are now the preserve of the affluent. Affordable food now consists of the sort of high fat, high sugar ingredients the poor once consumed as a rare treat. This fact makes most foodies rather ornery, though a sixteenth-century Italian peasant would probably have considered a daily provision of McMuffins and Big Macs a minor miracle.
We first heard of Kool-Aid pickles, aka Koolickles, in a May 9th New York Times article. A minor craze has taken root amongst African-American children in the Mississippi Delta for dill pickles preserved in hyper-sweetened Kool-Aid. The confections sell for between fifty cents and one dollar, and the majority of vendor-producers are local residents who operate unlicensed "convenience" stores out of their homes.
The notion that a mixture of preserved cucumbers and sugar water merits mention in the same context as prosciutto may seem far-fetched -- and I'm not trying to imply that the former is anywhere near as delicious as the latter -- but these children, from a region described as a "Third World country in the heart of America" in a US government report, have captured the essence of cucina povera in a ruby-hued snack. By mixing two inexpensive ingredients, sour vinegared cucumbers and toothachingly sweet sugar water, these kids have modulated simple flavours into something subtle and complex, and, to them at least, delicious. They've also provided an example of how cucina povera has morphed to become the preserve of industrial, processed food.
Given our penchant for culinary experimentation, Rachel and I didn't hesitate to try our hands at these pickles. The article was a little vague on the recipe, specifying only: "'It's easy to make a gallon.... You pull the pickles from the jar, cut them in halves, make double-strength Kool-Aid, add a pound of sugar, shake and let it sit -- best in the refrigerator -- for about a week.'" So that's what we did, using both cherry- and strawberry-flavoured Kool-Aid.
One week later we returned for a nibble. The pickles are surprisingly mild, a balance of tart and sweet, with a hint of "fruit" flavour. What sounds like a culinary dare on paper -- and looks it on the plate -- is actually fairly tame on the palate. Interestingly, the sweetest batches taste most strongly of fruit. The cherry flavour is the most candy-like, while the strawberry batch tastes fresher (or as fresh as Kool-Aid can taste). Adult votes were split between the two; kids were unanimous: "That's cool!" usually followed by requests for custom flavours and colours.
Would we rush to make them again? Only if we had to cater a kid's birthday party. I would consider fiddling with the recipe, however, by making a fruit syrup, using perhaps frozen strawberries and vanilla. Then again, there's always the possibility of going completely off the board. Coffee and cardamom pickles, anyone?