Editor's note: Occasionally what looks at first glance to be a conventional guidebook transcends the genre in surprising ways. John T. Edge's Southern Belly is just such a read, which is why I'm pleased that he has allowed us to excerpt selected items from it on Serious Eats, where they appear every other week. —Ed Levine
By John T. Edge | Southerners have had a long love affair with all things fried. We eat fried chicken by the tub, savor fried oysters drenched in hot sauce, munch fried okra like popcorn, and still relish a mess of fried chitlins now and again. But dill pickles? Fried? Despite the empirical truth of their vinegary and greasy goodness, there are some things that give even a Southerner reason to pause.
And so it was when I first encountered fried dill pickles. I pausedlong enough to ask three questions: Why would anyone do such a thing to a perfectly good pickle? Who was the first brave soul to drop a mess of pickles in hot oil? And, when did this great event first take place? Simple enough questions—or so I thought.
Two restaurants claim to have been the originators of this gastronomic oddity. According to the owners of the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville, Mississippi, fried dill pickles made their debut in 1969 when a desperate cook, confronted by a dining room full of patrons, a vat of bubbling oil, and a scarcity of catfish, reached for an industrial-sized jar of dill pickle chips. The story goes that he rolled them in the batter intended for the catfish, served them to a crowd of incredulous but famished diners, and then sat back to savor the praise.
It's a good story, parroted by many. But, according to Bob Austin of Atkins, Arkansas, "It's a damn lie." Bob claims to have invented the fried dill pickle in 1960 while operating the Duchess Drive In, directly across the street from the pickle plant in Atkins. "I had an inspiration one day and just started working on the batter," he says. "Staring out the window at that pickle plant all day, your mind gets to wandering. So I sliced some pickles and fixed up a batter. My batter beats all. And I'm not telling anybody what's in it. I'll sell it to the right person, but nobody's getting it for free. The rest, they're all imposters. Nobody has been able to duplicate it since."
A few years back the Duchess closed. Bob retired. These days, those "original" pickles are available only during Picklefest, Atkins' annual spring celebration, when the local VFW hall sets up a booth and sells them on the street. "Yep, they're the only ones that I let use my recipe," says Bob. "That's your one chance if you want to try the real thing."
Occurs in May each year; visit the Arkansas Festival Association for exact dates