Column: Bad news for pickle lovers

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Roger VanHaren

I recently read an article about how pickles might be a cancer-causing food. Pickled cucumbers, pickled beets, pickled cabbage. I like those things.

The article said “Chinese studies have shown that populations which suffer a certain esophageal cancer also depend on fermented veggies for long periods each year. Scientists have linked the cancer to a fungi used in the fermentation process, and a 2009 review of such studies found that the regular consumption of pickled veggies doubles the risk for this form of cancer.”

When I go in for my chemo infusions, the nurses put on what look like bio-hazard suits when they’re dealing with the chemicals they’re running into my arm. Do I have to put on such a suit when I open a jar of my favorite pickles?

By the time I got down to the end of the article, I was starting to feel better about my pickles. The author stated, “The Chinese pickling process appears to prompt microbes to release carcinogens, but the big-name pickle makers over here use a different system, one that’s pasteurized. So there’s ‘no evidence’ your supermarket pickles cause cancer.”

Besides, Americans eat about four pounds of pickles a year; in Asian studies, pickle fans munched on the vegetables throughout the week.

Talking about pickles reminds me of when my sister and I were kids growing up on the farm near Oconto Falls. There weren’t many opportunities for us kids to make money. Chores were expected of us, not paid for.

But for many summers, we did get the opportunity to make a little money of our own when Mom and Dad decided they’d grow cucumbers. Yup, we were going to strike it rich picking cucumbers.

I’m not even sure now what we got paid – I know it wasn’t much because we didn’t get to keep all the money we earned, but it wasn’t long before we realized that picking cucumbers was hard work.

But, you know, it wasn’t just the “picking” that I remember; it was a lot more than that. Before we ever got to the picking, there was the planting, the thinning, the hilling, the weeding, the hoeing, and the training of the vines.

Those rows of cukes across a big field seemed endless when you had to hoe them, or when you crawled on hands and knees, dragging a gunny sack to pick the little thorny cucumbers. Most of your senses come into play when you’re picking pickles – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feels, and even the tastes.

Sometimes we’d begin the picking very early in the morning when the summer dew was still on the plants and the air itself was a crisp chill. As the day wore on, though, and the sun got higher in the sky, the scents and feels of the day changed.

The bright yellow blossoms, both the pollen-bearing males and the fruit-bearing females, were pretty, but they smelled bad. And the bees hung around them, too. (I was allergic to bee stings!)

I suppose plants have to defend themselves from their enemies (us) in certain ways. Cucumbers, at least the variety we grew, had very sharp little black “pickers” or thorns on them. And the plants also had prickly stems and vines.

And when you picked the pickle off the vine, the vine would secrete a drop of moisture. Always curious when I was a kid, I tasted it once – ugh! Very bitter! Anyway, by the end of a day of picking, our hands would be stained green and we’d have all those little black pickers stuck into our fingers.

And then there were the bugs. There were at least three kinds of beetles that populated the pickle patch. There was a little spotted cucumber beetle that had a bright yellowish-green body, always with 12 spots. There was a striped cucumber beetle, about the same size as the spotted ones, yellow in color, with three longitudinal black stripes on the wing covers. There was also was a much bigger bug that we called a “squash bug” that made me shudder because it was so ugly.

Dad always wanted us to pick the little “number 1’s” – the gherkin size – because the pickle company paid more for those. We got paid by the pound at the receiving station in town, but it took an awful lot of those little devils to make a pound.

It was easier to get a pound of the dill-size or slicing-size, but we mostly tried to get the little ones.

At the end of a day of picking, we’d take the bags to the station where they’d be dumped onto a sorting conveyor. Then we’d wait for the weighing. The slip would tell how many pounds of each size pickle we had and how much we had earned. It never seemed like enough.

And now they’re saying pickles could cause cancer!

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at