Fried dill pickles are one of Mississippi’s most memorable appetizers, served in taverns featuring hamburger steak and pinball, at roadside catfish houses, and on white tablecloths in temples of New Southern cuisine. Cooks across the Magnolia State favor hamburger dills cut into slices rather than spears, but the unanimity ends there. The origin of the dish is debatable, the dipping sauce varies widely, and the batter may have no spices at all or liberal sprinklings of cayenne pepper and garlic powder.
Robinsonville’s Hollywood Café has long declared itself the originator of fried dill pickles. One version of the story dates the creation to 1969, when the catfish supply was exhausted one evening and the cook substituted pickles. However, other establishments in Mississippi and Arkansas also claim to have devised the dish. Considering southern cooks’ propensity for frying almost anything, “fried dill pickles were just bound to happen eventually,” writes Sweet Potato Queen Jill Conner Browne. Hal White, co-owner and chef at Hal and Mal’s Restaurant and Brewery in downtown Jackson, theorizes that the first fried dill pickle resulted when an errant hamburger chip was inadvertently tossed into onion ring batter and fried.
White’s pickles undergo a three-step dunk: into a wash of eggs and milk, then into seasoned flour, and then back into the wash before deep-frying. Some cooks use a single-step process in which the pickles are dipped into a batter made from some combination of milk, buttermilk, beer, pickle juice, flour, hot sauce, red pepper, garlic, and paprika. Because of the saltiness of the pickles, some recipes do not include salt. Some call for no seasoning whatsoever.
Cock of the Walk restaurants in Jackson and Natchez bring fried dill pickles to the table without dipping sauce. Beer joints often serve ketchup as a condiment, and some diners stir in shots of hot sauce. At the Blue and White Restaurant in Tunica, the preferred accompaniment is ranch dressing. Some Mississippi establishments serve Comeback Sauce with fried dill pickles. An unusual creation of Jackson’s Greek-owned restaurants, Comeback has been described as a spicier, pureed version of Thousand Island dressing minus the chopped pickles. New Orleans–style remoulade sauce is another dipping option. White labels fried dill pickles a “Mississippi thing,” while Gourmet magazine’s “Road Food” columnist, Michael Stern, has portrayed them as both a “weird Delta specialty” and a “favorite Delta munchie.”
Whether invented or accidental, fried dill pickles have been more passionately embraced in Mississippi than in any other state. Thin, round, briny, crunchy, spiced, sauced, and steaming hot, they epitomize the creative and resourceful use of common southern kitchen pantry staples.
- Jill Conner Browne, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner) (2003)
- John T. Edge, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide to the South (2007)
- Michael Stern, Road Food website, www.roadfood.com
- Hal White, Interview by Fred Sauceman (27 August 2003)