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July 04, 2007

Dill-icious: Kool-Aid pickles

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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?

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Comments

Unbelievable! I'd never even heard of these. Trust you and Rachel to go where no one else dares.

As for cucina povera, we practice it even today. In the sumemr we almost exclusively eat what we can grow in our little garden. And to be honest, we don't miss any of the supermarket produce at all!

As always, a wonderful post!

Pille

Interesting post, though I must admit I'd be very weary of trying Kool-Aid pickles. But then I make my own pickles regularly and am addicted to these, so I know exactly how I like my pickles:)

Drew

Wow, those are... very colorful. Hah. They do sound like fun, though. The moment you deconstruct it as cucumber salad over Kool-Aid caviar with a vinegar dressing, though, I'm heading for the hills...

My favorite soul food is chicken and waffles, hands down. Haven't ever really tried taking that to any new heights, though, it's great the way it is.

Susan from Food Blogga

"Cucina povera" sounds so much more sophisticated than "peasant meals," which is what my Italian-American family called these ingenious yet delicious dishes. In fact, it shocks my mom when she sees typical Italian "peasant dishes" such as escarole and beans for $10 a bowl at restaurants or reads about star-power foods such as arugula, which she had all the time as a kid.

Thanks for another interesting post, Rob. Isn't what those kids did with the pickles similar to what home cooks, amateurs, and chefs do: experiment with contrasting flavors to create something unusual? Thanks for a great read.

Stephen

Great stuff. I appreciate your interest in the unusual. Sometimes the most incredible dishes come from the poorest of places. Who knows, maybe in five years everyone will be eating these things (hopefully it would be with fresh fruits and not powder though). ;)

Ellie

Now this looks interesting! You know, I have to admit that as simple as this may be, I just couldn't bring myself to try it as the thought of this alone terrifies me! The post was a great read, though, and has made me curious about what 'cucina povera' there could be in Australian culture for me to investigate :)

Alanna

Aha -- I loved them in orange too! http://kitchen-parade-veggieventure.blogspot.com/2007/05/kool-aid-pickles.html

Great post with the comparisons to other 'cuisine' aka food.

lacy renfro

Im going to try this! I think maybe Rassberry Lemonaid and add frozen Rassberries to the mix.

This is a very very interesting post!!! For an italian girl too!!! Thank's dear Rob! You speak about oiur food every time!! :)
And sorry, my english it's so ... bleah!
;o)

Gourmet

This is a very very interesting post!!! For an italian girl too!!! Thank's dear Rob! You speak about oiur food every time!! :)
And sorry, my english it's so ... bleah!
;o)

Donnie Detriment

Of all the different food available worldwide, under the guise of "cucina povera" you decide to write about Kool Aid pickles.

Couldn't find anything more interesting ? If it is weird, let me write about it.

You are one strange dude.

Lucious Washington

I grew up in Jackson Missisippi, and return there several times a year. I dont think I ever saw this Kool aid pickle craze the Times writes about. Them fools will write about anything to fill their paper up and I think you are so in love with the NY Times you thought it be funny to try this out.

Well I hope you had fun.

Lisa (Homesick Texan)

They look very, er, Kool, but I'm a bit timid to try making them since Kool-Aid has always frightened me. I like your homemade fruit syrup idea, however.

Ms. Glaze

BBQ or filet mignon? No question. BBQ!!! I've never seen such beautiful pickles before. Electric Kool-Aid Pickle Test. What a trip...

Buckley Steele

Wow what a great find.Even though it has freaked out a lot of readers it is somthing that i personally think could be utilized in many different recipes with a little flair and imagination,such as vedgetable terrines,chutneys,fish sauces like a grenenbloise,fanned on a plate as a garni accompanied with other items like capers,lemon thyme,chiffonade of basil or sorrel,or mint.How bout balsamic berris& diced pickles,or what about borscht?Thanx loads,you really opened the left side of my brain today !

KoolAidDills

I have searched for weeks for these infamous Kool-Aid Dills, and I am happy to let you know that I found a site that sells them online! They have strawberry, blueberry, cherry, lemon, lime, grape, & orange!

It's called Kool-Aid Dills "Kickles" (what else?) and it is located at http://www.KoolAidDills.com

I ordered some for my grandkids and can't wait to see what all the rave is about! I will post the results later, meanwhile,
happy pickling.

KoolAidDills

I have searched for weeks for these infamous Kool-Aid Dills, and I am happy to let you know that I found a site that sells them online! They have strawberry, blueberry, cherry, lemon, lime, grape, & orange!

It's called Kool-Aid Dills "Kickles" (what else?) and it is located at http://www.KoolAidDills.com

I ordered some for my grandkids and can't wait to see what all the rave is about! I will post the results later, meanwhile,
happy pickling.

Dale

I have had many Kool Aid Dills before and all the tastes are different. One thing I can tell you is very few flavors make a good Kool Aid dill. The rest are very nasty. I found some very good ones at http://myaspickles.com

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Thanks for your information. Most of the posts in the blog is really valuable. Regards

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