Friday, July 17, 2009
Fried pickles: A "Southern novelty food" no more
One of my favorite restaurants of all time is Toot's in Murfreesboro, TN. Toot's serves some of the best chicken wings known to man, and they have excellent thick, beer-battered onions rings. During my years as an undergraduate and graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University, my friends and I ate enough chicken wings and onion rings to fill the Charles M. Murphy Athletic Center. And that's not an exaggeration.
I was eating at Toot's when I ate my first fried pickle. I'd seen 'em on the menu the, oh, four-dozen previous times that I'd eaten there, but it'd never even occured to me or any o' my friends to order the things. (Indeed, we only went to Toot's for: the wings, the short-shorts-wearing servers, the $5 pitchers of beer, and the onion rings ... in that order.) We went there one night with someone who'd never been there before. We just happened to mention that when we were ordering, and our server told us that all first-time diners received a bowl of complimentary fried pickles. From then on, my friends and I designated a First-Time Visitor each time we went to Toot's ... not just because the pickles were free, but because they were very, very good.
I'm going to post a proper review of Toot's soon, in which I'll go into more detail 'bout their fried pickles. In the meantime, check out this excellent fried pickle post from Slashfood.com:
While fried dill pickles long ago surpassed their status as a Southern novelty food to become a ubiquitous bar snack, condiment selection is apparently still regionally bound.
For the uninitiated, fried pickles -- a dish that probably dates back to the 1960s -- are thinly sliced pickle chips, dredged in the same batter that classically envelops deep-fried catfish, oysters and okra. While the rare rogue restaurant employs unfried pickle spears, chips have been an industry standard since at least 1984, when a Wall Street Journal reporter journeyed to Arkansas to document the burgeoning pickle craze.
Adding legitimacy to the radical dish, the story quoted Southern food authority Craig Claiborne: "They're fantastic -- a totally new experience."
But the story also included a quote from a Heinz company spokeswoman, who bestowed her enthusiastic approval on what she insisted on calling "frickles."
"I don't know that it's the world's favorite recipe, but we don't care as long as they use ketchup," she said.
Only in Pittsburgh. Ketchup is almost never used by southern pickle snackers, who generally prefer ranch dressing.
"Ranch dressing pretty much goes with anything fried," explains Billy Murphy, executive chef at the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville, Miss., one of at least two eateries that claims to have originated the fried pickle. According to the Hollywood's creation story, the two recent college grads who'd opened the restaurant ran out of food.
"One particular night, they looked at them jar of pickles," continues Murphy. What happened next is, of course, legendary.
Murphy says Hollywood's patrons have always been partial to ranch: "It intensifies the flavor of the pickles," he says.
Just as Carolinians rub butter on their hush puppies and Mississippians soak them in hot sauce, condiment selection opinions get feistier the further south one travels. At Liuzza's in New Orleans, which nightly serves order after order of deep-fried pickles, the pickles are served without accompaniment. Manager Pam Dugas says customers often request remoulade sauce.
"Actually," she adds, "I recommend ranch."