Thursday, May 31, 2012

Little Cucumbers That Have Gone to Heaven

I grew up outside of New York City, which has the world's second-largest population of Jewish people after Israel. Jewish foods could be bought everywhere. My family is Jewish, and a treasured family ritual was our Sunday visit to the local deli, Sol and Sol's. I would stand beside my father while he discussed the fine distinctions among various types of cured meats or smoked fish. One of the owners would always pinch my cheek and hand me a little sample of something. So deli food is in my blood.

After I moved to Massachusetts in the mid-60s, I was horrified to discover that few locals even knew what a deli was. For years I muttered about the lack of good rye bread or real bagels. To compensate, I would buy large quantities of deli food whenever I drove to New Jersey to visit my family. I would return to Massachusetts, laden with large shopping bags stuffed with rye bread, bagels, rugelah, and babkas. I would also bring back pickles, since Massachusetts pickles were very different from the ones I grew up with. (As it turns out, there are two main kinds of pickles, one of which gets its tang from bacteria.) The bread stuffs went into the freezer, and the pickles went into the fridge.

I grew up eating kosher dills and half-sours. Until recently, I thought that a half-sour was made with vinegar, as many other pickles are. I figured they were taken out of the brine when half-done. But no, it turns out that half-sours are fermented in a low-salt brine. They contain no vinegar.

One food writer, John Thorne, described half-sours as "cucumbers still, not pickles—little cucumbers who [have] died and gone to heaven." I believe that is an apt description. A half-sour has the crunch and freshness of a firm little cucumber with a little bite. You can eat them in quantity. 

When I was a kid, many delis put out free bowls of half-sours for diners to munch on while they waited for their food. Rein's Deli, off Rt. 84 outside of Hartford, CT, still does this. When I visited some family members in Connecticut last week, I stopped by Rein's on my way home and filled a shopping bag with rye bread, rugelah, and half-sours. I guess some things never change.


  1. I remember in the Englewood Deli if you called out "Sol," several people would answer. Maybe everybody. It was the best joke.

  2. I buy half sours from Amazon these days. I grew up on full sours but you can't find either in the shops here in the midwest anymore. Maybe I should check the New York Deli in town? Hmmmm..