The Spear or The Chip?

I was out with some friends at a popular fast casual chain restaurant that had just opened in Dallas when I first saw them on the appetizer menu–fried pickles.

“FRIED PICKLES! Who the hell ever heard of fried pickles?”

“You gotta try them,” one member of the group said. “They’re great!”

fried-dill-picklesSo being a curious sort, especially when it comes to food, I had to try them for myself. When the dish arrived at our table, I must say they looked good–somewhat like fat French fries. Now maybe it was just a mental block, since in my mind the whole idea of breading and frying pickles was kinda crazy, but I was not too impressed. That was in the early 1970s, and it would be some ten years later before fried pickles and I would once again cross paths, this time with a much better reception.

The first known recipe for fried pickles appeared in the Oakland Tribune on November 19, 1962. That recipe, French Fried Pickles, called for using sweet pickle slices dipped in pancake mix and deep fried.

fatman-austins-fried-picklesLike many of our foods, the origin of fried pickles remains a mystery, and the person responsible for popularizing the dish is surrounded in controversy. In April 1960, Bernell Austin (aka “Fatman”) opened the Duchess Drive-In Restaurant on a leased parcel of land in Atkins, Arkansas, across U.S. Highway 64 from the Atkins Pickle Company. In search of a gimmick to help attract more business, and after staring at the pickle factory every day, Fatman came across the idea of fried pickles.

After spending the next several months developing a recipe that was his own, Fatman began selling breaded and deep-fried dill pickle spears–fifteen spears for fifteen cents. Before long, The Duchess Drive-In’s fried pickles became well known for miles around the tiny restaurant. And while others tried to copy Austin’s idea with various degrees of success, none were able to duplicate his breading recipe, one that remains a family secret even today.

In 1968, the state of Arkansas opened Interstate 40 through Atkins bypassing The Duchess. This resulted in a drop in business, so Fatman opened a second drive-in restaurant near the new thru-fare to take advantage of its heavy traffic. The new restaurant, named The Loner, quickly became a popular stopping place for both locals and interstate travelers alike.

Fatman sold The Loner in 1978, retiring from the food business. Following his death in 1999, the Austin family continues to keep his memory alive by serving Fatman’s Original Fried Dill Pickles at the annual two-day Picklefest held in May in downtown Atkins, with the profits going to charities Fatman had supported through the Masonic Lodge.

hollywoods-fried-picklesMississippi also claims credit for commercializing the fried pickle. Tate Seldon’s Hollywood Café, originally located in Hollywood, Mississippi, began serving fried pickles in 1970. After a request from one of its customers, Seldon dredged crosscut dill pickle chips first through an egg and milk wash, then a mixture of flour, cayenne, chili powder and salt, and deep fried them to a delicious golden brown.

In 1983 after Seldon’s restaurant burned down, he relocated his cafe to a quaint 1922 commissary building in Robinsonville (also known as Tunica Resorts), a community just six miles north of the original location on U.S. Highway 61. Here, Hollywood Cafe continues to serve its popular fried dill pickle chips to hundreds of folks every month.

deep-fried-pickle-spearsToday fried pickles can be found throughout the U.S. but are especially popular in the American South where they’re frequently served with a side of ranch or bleu cheese dressing, ketchup, or other dipping sauce. While any type of pickle can be used, dill pickles (not Kosher) seem to be the most popular in terms of taste, though many people say spears have the greater visual appeal. Whether to bread them or batter them is another subject of debate. In fact, about the only thing people seem to agree on is that the pickles, whether spears or chips, should be cut to a thickness of 1/4-inch and cooked while cold.

So whether it’s spears or chips, fried dill pickles are an absolute must try.

Try Em: Cock of the Walk Restaurant, Natchez, Mississippi; Hollywood Cafe, Robinsonville, MS; Laurie’s Place, Edwardsville, IL

Make Em: French Fried Pickle Slices; Hollywood Cafe Fried Dill Pickles

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Will Twinkies Be Lost Forever?

As some of you may already know, Hostess Brands, Inc., the company who makes Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Sno Balls, and other popular baked goods, filed for bankruptcy protection on January 11 of this year. Finally on Friday, November 16, after striking workers refused to return to work, company officials decided to seek the court’s permission to wind down operations.

In 1930, James Dewar, baker and manager for the Hostess line of Chicago’s Continental Bakery, began searching for a way to better utilize the pans and equipment normally used only to produce shortcakes during strawberry season. His answer was a small, oblong, banana cream-filled sponge cake–a treat he called Twinkie, the name inspired by an advertisement for Twinkle Toe shoes.

Twinkies quickly became a favorite American snack food, sharing top honors with Hostess cupcakes, a product that had been around since 1919. During World War II, however, it became almost impossible to get bananas so the company changed to a vanilla filling. After the war, sales were so good that Hostess decided to keep the vanilla cream center.

Over the years Twinkies have become a permanent part of America’s pop culture and the subject of many urban myths, legends, and notoriety.

At his San Francisco trial in 1978, defendant Dan White argued that he killed the city’s mayor because of diminished mental capacity brought on by binging on junk food the night before. Although the strategy didn’t work, it became known as the “Twinkie defense.”

In 1986, Twinkies once again became the central figure in a legal battle when a Minneapolis City Council candidate was indicted for bribing senior citizens with coffee, Twinkies, and other sweets in exchange for votes. This lead to the passage of the Minnesota Campaign Act, also referred to as the “Twinkie Law.”

Twinkies have also appeared in numerous Hollywood movies such as Die Hard, Ghostbusters, and Grease. And Archie Bunker, a leading character in the 1970s sitcom, All in the Family, loved them so much that in one episode he became furious at Edith for failing to include a pack of Twinkies in his lunch pail.

In spite of stories that Twinkies have a shelf life of 30, 50, even 100 years (it’s actually twenty-five days), and so indestructible that they can survive an atomic blast, America’s taste buds continue their love affair with this sugary, fat-filled delight. Seventeen Hostess bakeries across the country turn out 500 million Twinkies each year which comes to a mind boggling 1,000 of the cream filled cakes being produced every minute.

While Hostess’s liquidation could certainly mean the end of this iconic snack food, it will probably just create a temporary Twinkie shortage. Since the company plans to sell off its portfolio of snack food treats, and in fact already has several potential buyers, this popular, iconic American confection will most likely find new life under a different owner. But for now, those of you with a secret Twinkies stash need to make this difficult decision: Do I eat them, or sell them on eBay?

Buy Em: Fresh Chocodiles, Amazon, eBay

Find Em: Deep-Fried Twinkies: Wingin It, Centennial, CO; Beach Bites, Seaside, OR; Chocolate Covered Twinkies: Golden Edibles, Online Only

Make Em: Homemade Twinkies, Twinkie-Misu, Ultimate Deep-Fried Twinkie, Mary Anne’s Twinkie Cake, Patriotic Twinkie Pie