Photo by Liz West CC BY
As she lifted the plate from the stoneware crock, the yellow-green briny liquid looked disgusting. The sharp vinegary smell felt like a punch in the nose. She’d scoop a small cucumber from the brine with a slotted spoon, then put it in a bowl or on a paper napkin. The pickles weren’t pretty. The older ones were an ancient dark green color and looked like they’d partially inwardly collapsed. But even the younger ones with less time in the crock had scary-looking yellow spots of dry mustard circling the tiny surface bumps of their skins.
Identifying a Maine mustard pickle is pretty easy. At first bite their distinctive reality tickles the center of the nose, followed by a sweet and surprisingly bitter crunch aimed directly at the taste buds, holding them hostage with a feeling reminiscent of drinking a very tannic tea. Depending on the length of the brine, the spiciness ranges from pleasantly soft to exuberantly sharp. It’s rare when one pickle tastes exactly the same as the last one, because the flavor depends on a lot of things: cucumber size and breed, how long it was brined, even the temperature of the room where the crock is kept.
These pickles are different from the usual dill pickle in how they taste as well as, sometimes, texture. If the mouthfeel of the usual dill pickle were to be compared to hearing a person’s voice speaking steadily in a conversational tone, the Maine mustard pickle would be that same person’s voice laughing or singing.
Maine mustard pickles are an organic force of nature — you have to live with what you get. You don’t control them, you just accept them. The delicate flavor of one with a short brine switches drastically, after a long brine time, to a pickle so puckery and strong it feels like your tongue might end up with a burn mark after eating it.
I’ve known these pickles since childhood. My grandmother made them each year, even when she lived alone in a small apartment in her old age. An earthenware pickle crock sat in a corner of her kitchen and whenever I visited (which wasn’t often — we lived far away when I was young) she’d always be sure to give me a pickle. The pickle seems to fit what Maine is, in some emotional sense. It holds true to the idea of Maine’s traditional cultural values: no-nonsense attitudes, sharp and often surprising humor, and a tolerance of individualism. Summer is short and beautiful Down East, winter is tough and usually filled with snowstorms.
Maine native Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a food historian and author of six cookbooks. When I asked her about the Maine mustard pickle she said, “I don’t know where to acquire them unless one makes them oneself. They are different from piccalilli because the cucumber is in larger chunks, often with cauliflower added, and lots of powdered mustard plus flour (yes! I said flour). My mother made the best. I have never been able to repeat hers to my satisfaction.”
The mystery of this pickle is that not only do the available recipes vary quite a bit — some including flour, others with whole mustard seed rather than ground mustard powder, some with alum added, brown sugar in one and white sugar in another and all with wildly varying amounts of mustard, but the pickle itself is very hard to find, appearing in unexpected places only to disappear without a trace. I recently tasted a Maine mustard pickle alongside a lobster roll at Ed’s Lobster Bar here in the city of New York. The servers and cook didn’t know what the pickle was called when I asked them — nor did the manager of the restaurant. The cook said he’d been given a recipe and liked it, so kept making it. No big deal. The next time I went to the restaurant a regular dill pickle was being served with the lobster roll. When I asked about the mustard pickle, nobody knew what I was talking about.
I asked my cousin Rick, who lives in central Maine, if he still makes the pickles. He replied with a copy of a handwritten recipe and the note: “This is dad’s (grammy’s) recipe. I do make these every year using cukes from my garden and usually eat them with a lunch of burgers or sandwiches. If you want to actually make some you should know that ground mustard seems to be stronger today, and I usually use just a single 1.75 oz bottle per batch. Enjoy!”
Photo courtesy of Karen Resta
I’ve searched for places to buy the pickle readymade and aside from a few farm stand/grocery stores in and near Maine, it seems almost impossible to find. It’s shocking, really, to know how strong an emotion rises in me when I unsuspectingly bite into what turns out to be a Maine mustard pickle in places I’d never expect this homespun, rough and tough pickle to be. I like the fact that hardly anyone knows what this pickle really is, here in the Big Apple, the city of dreams. That means it’s still mine, my secret pickle, Maine itself summoned in one crunchy bite.
If you’d like to try Maine mustard pickles for yourself, two places in New York have been serving the pickle recently: Red Hook Lobster Pound’s (at the Brooklyn location) pickle is with white sugar, which has a different flavor than the pickle made with brown sugar at street vendor Horman’s Best Pickles. In Maine, mustard pickles can be bought at select locations of Morse’s Sauerkraut and Deli.
Karen Resta is a writer, a food culturalist, and a sometimes-fashionista who mostly loves ice cream and Brooklyn.