Column – Long live the sweet pickle, a Southern delicacy

Published 4:51 pm Tuesday, July 25, 2023

There are few summer aromas that match that of cucumbers steeping in vinegar and herbs, on their way to becoming sweet pickle. And once made, of course, there are few things that equal the taste of a good, crisp sweet pickle slice. I can never stop at eating one.

Sweet pickle has been a part of local lore and taste across the Virginia countryside for generations and generations. Anne uses a recipe handed down by her grandmother, who received it from hers and so on. It’s about the same recipe my mother used, and it was passed down as well. So, our pickling fancy has multiple roots, all well established.

To explain the importance of the summer pickling tradition, I’ll relate a short anecdote. A very dear aunt of mine, Annie Seward of Surry, had a heart attack in 1997. She lived for several days, but at 89, the attack proved fatal. My last visit with her was in the hospital, on the day she died. Putting things in what to her was the proper perspective, she said, “Johnny, I’m worried about my cucumbers. They were in the sink soaking.”

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I never found out what happened to Aunt Beck’s cucumbers, but I’ve missed her sweet pickles, as I’ve missed her, a country lady who never lost sight of the important role she played in life.

I took sweet pickle for granted most of my life until the year 2000. When the millennium began and most of the world’s computers didn’t crash, as had been predicted in the infamous Y2K fright, I thought things were going to be OK. 

That is, until I attended the county fair that year with plans to write a Short Rows about the canned goods. That’s when I learned that, right here in Isle of Wight County, not a single sweet pickle had won a ribbon — not Blue, Red or even White. The dills had walked away with the honors, and I walked away saddened that one more link to our county history — one very harmless Southern tradition, I might add — had been trampled by an interloper.

A few years later, we were eating lunch in the Ice Cream Parlor. Our oldest granddaughter, Maddie, was a toddler at the time and was in a high chair. Her mother handed her a slice of dill pickle and she loved it. She has ever since. She barely tolerates sweet pickle to this day, and we keep a jar of dill in the refrigerator for her. I’ve contemplated marking a skull and crossbones on the label, but thought it might be uncharitable. 

To be fair, I’ll eat a dill pickle occasionally since that’s the only thing sandwich shops and restaurants seem to have available. And if you don’t want a touch of sweetness in a sandwich, then dill’s OK. It just can’t replace sweet pickle.

I use sweet pickle in sandwiches that I make, and for Virginians, sweet pickle juice is a valued commodity, an important ingredient in coleslaw and deviled eggs. As a kid, I even drank small glasses of the sweet pickle liquor. Boy, was it good. And I’m proud to say we have a grandson who’ll take a sip as well. And his appetite for sweet pickle combined with mine prompts Anne to make an extra batch each summer.

There are numerous Southern traditions that we would do well to forever bury, but not so our cuisine. Black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes (served together, of course), clabber biscuits or their modern equivalent, fried chicken and dry-cured ham — the list is long and mouthwatering. And as a condiment to most meals, the sweet pickle has no equal.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is