By Mark York
My dear reader, this is a public service announcement. Yes, let it be heard (or read) by everyone. I shall dispel the illusion once and for all that pickles are anything better than the absolute worst.
Indeed, this is the argument I am making; this is the hill I am prepared to die on. Pickles are to sandwiches as “Crash” is to Oscar winners or “Math 51” is to your GPA, and they have no place in civilized society. They fall short of all reasonable food standards, displease the aesthetic senses, taste awful and, most importantly, are impossible to avoid. Pickles truly are the “Maroon 5” of the deli world … except the taste part — don’t think too much about that.
First, we must discuss presentation, because even on the surface I am disappointed. Think back to the fanciest restaurant you have ever been to (or the latest episode of “MasterChef”), and you will find that aesthetics are essential. You can practically picture the wide, metal platter carried by the waiter, and the steam trickling from the contents. Perhaps it is a steak: the juices have pooled onto its surface and seeped down onto the plate, marinating the mashed potatoes down below — it is harmonious. And the smell — ah, the aroma of a fresh meal, just begging to be eaten. Before you even grab the fork, you can practically feel it in your mouth. You will cherish the build-up nearly as much as the meal itself; that, dear reader, is presentation.
Have I made you hungry, dear reader? Well, now I want you to picture a grimy mason jar in the back of your shelf, in which a soggy cucumber bathes in murky green depression juice. There are little flakes of guck swimming about, too, of unknown origin. You are not sure if you ought to disturb this creature; it looks as though it’s incubating. Maybe, you jiggle the container a bit, and you hear not a hearty chunk, a satisfying dink, or even a fun little splosh, but a weak thump — a thump as this thing clumsily stumbles into the glass. But now, after finally pulling off the lid (an endeavor in of itself) you must get the pickle out of the jar. There is no easy way. Most likely, you will grab the nearest fork and attempt to jab at it, and as the brine gets on your knuckles, you will plop it onto the plate as the ominous liquids drip onto the countertop. That won’t stain, will it? And, oh. Oh. You finally notice it: the smell — the scent of death! You grimace uncontrollably, and tears seep down your innocent eyes as this raw vinegar scent protrudes from the nightmare food. And, congratulations: for all your efforts you stare at a shriveled up vegetable, with … bumps for some reason, drenched in what looks to be swamp water. It looks alive.
But, if there was one thing my mother taught me, it was to never judge a book by its cover — granted, she would have made an exception if it was found in a smelly, mysterious liquid, and growing mysterious bumps, but that’s beside the point. It is technically food; how does the pickle taste? Well, dear reader, you might like to know that I ate a pickle yesterday.
I survived, thankfully, but I will never be the same again. The pickle lies in a sort of uncanny valley — it is too tough to go down easily, but it is too soft to be considered crunchy. It is rough and textured, but also wet and sloppy. But texture aside, the taste itself hit me like a brick to the head. It was an atom bomb of sour, an aggressive fury of tang that flooded my tongue and spread this weird numbness to the bottom of my jaw. Never before had the mouth felt so freakish and unnatural to me. To put it simply, it was an unpleasant experience, and much like your local frat party, it was one I would prefer not to revisit again. But, I can practically hear the pickle sympathizers plead, “That’s unfair”; “they go well in sandwiches”; “I think he’s finally snapped.” Allow me to refute this! Once again, like the local frat party, I repeated this horrible experience out of sheer boredom, slipping the pickle into my sandwich. While I admit that it was not quite so horrible the second time, I certainly felt the pickle: the vinegar had seeped into the meats and overshadowed everything else. Things were out of whack — the bread, turkey, cheese, aioli sauce had all been knocked out of their proper orbit and forced to revolve around this new, dominant force. The pickle had ruined the simplistic beauty of the deli, and for that I will never forgive it.
It would be one thing, however, if it was simply a matter of tastes. I could appreciate the pickle as an alternate perspective, or even a lifestyle choice, like going vegan or owning a ferret. But dear reader, I regret to inform you, there is no escape.
Pickles are not only gross, they are not only strong: they are small and they are sneaky. One can try to order their sandwich or hamburger without pickles, though perhaps if you are like me you might feel weird tacking on this additional request, though it does not even work half the time. All this personal shame goes down the drain as, despite your pleading, something goes wrong behind the scenes and the pickle finds a way. The natural response, then, is to remove it, but there is a catch. Unlike the tomato or the bacon, you cannot tell if it is there or not; it is too small to be noticed by a surface-level probe. So, I, the unsuspecting consumer, take a bite out of my burger, expecting a meal after a long hard day; but instead a … SURPRISE PICKLE! A sour bomb goes off in my mouth and takes my first impression as a casualty.
So, I then attempt to remove the pickle, but the chef more often than not hides it at the bottom of the burger, burying it underneath the lettuce scraps and sauce. I cannot blame them; I wouldn’t want to look at it, either. But that means I have to dismantle my burger — if it is fast-food it gets even worse, as I now have to find a level surface — and dig my fingers inside the sauce, smearing away most of that initial flavor as I scout out this hidden pickle monstrosity and hunt down its brethren. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes.
But at last, I have dissected my meal, and though I look like a madman my efforts surely must count for something. The pickle is gone. I can sleep well at night. I take my bite, expecting to enjoy it, but something is off, something is missing. My meal is not the same anymore. Only later does it click — not only had I accidently knocked away a good chunk of the looser bits (the lettuce, the onion, the sauce) but the pickle residue — the “pickledue,” if you will — remains. The awful taste of the pickle has since soaked into the rest of the burger, and though it is just a tinge, it is still present like a lingering ghost. I may have won the battle, but the pickle has won the war.
I acknowledge, dear reader, that there is usually a rhythm to these sorts of articles. This would normally be the part in which I strip away the facade and speak from a genuine place. I might speak of how food is subjective, and make some sort of profound statement about multiple tastes coming together. If the pickle, however, is any indication, an article does not always need a moral — sometimes, the world is just cruel.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.