Practically any food that can be battered and thrown into a deep fryer ends up with a cult following at some point or another. But while fried pickles have seemed particularly pervasive on sports bar and restaurant menus over the past several years, the sour and crunchy snack actually has roots dating all the way back to the 1960s.
The restaurant with the most verifiable claim over the invention of the fried pickle appears to be the Duchess Drive-In, out of Atkins, Arkansas, which put them on the menu in 1963. (The Hollywood Cafe in Robinsonville, Mississippi, also markets itself as “Home of the Fried Dill Pickle” on its website, but didn’t open its doors until 1969, years after the Duchess Drive-In started frying up its pickles.)
The inventor of the snack was Duchess owner Bernell “Fatman” Austin, and according to Arkansas-based food writer and historian Kat Robinson, it’s not surprising that Austin would come up with the idea — his restaurant was located directly across from a pickle factory. “He had some hamburger dill pickle chips, threw them in catfish batter, and charged 10 cents for a basket of 10,” Robinson said. “They took off like crazy.”
For the next several decades, fried pickles worked their way into restaurant and food culture gradually. Texans often like to lay claim to the snack, but the earliest evidence of Texas fried pickles emerge from state fairs in the 1980s. Since then, state fairs across the country have been a popular place to find the snack for at least the past 15 to 20 years, Robinson said.
But the 21st century has helped transition the fried pickle from Southern novelty to bar menu staple. Most often, fried pickles are found in the appetizer section of restaurant menus. They’re also commonly available at barbecue joints, pubs, and dairy bars (ice cream shops with food) throughout the South, Robinson said.
Certain pockets across the country, everywhere from Upstate New York to Austin to Boston to Chicago, seem to have taken to the snack more than others. Eater DC first started observing the popularity of the snack in Washington around 2013 — today, at least 24 bars and restaurants there offer a version of the fried pickle, including Cajun restaurants, dive bars, fancy cocktail lounges, and even out-of-town Asian restaurant imports like Momofuku CCDC.
At Southside 815, a seafood restaurant and bar located in Old Town Alexandria, co-owner John Kurtz put them on the menu five years ago and hasn’t taken them off since. “They’re not our biggest seller,” he said, even though sales have remained steady. While fried pickles are frequently ordered in the restaurant’s dining room (“I think it’s an easy, shareable appetizer,” Kurtz said), bar-goers seem to stick more to wings and nachos when taking in a game.
Fried pickles are now mainstream enough to find a home on major restaurant chain menus. Chains including Chili’s, Hooters, Texas Roadhouse, and Buffalo Wild Wings now all serve versions of the snack. According to a spokesperson, Hooters added fried pickles to its menu in the fall of 2007 as a limited-time special, then decided to make them a permanent item after seeing high demand. Fried pickles first showed up at Buffalo Wild Wings in 2011.
The Internet has even circulated copycat recipes for at-home cooks who wish to mimic the Hooters or Texas Roadhouse taste. Another factor involved in the mainstreaming of the snack: Restaurants can now order them through food distribution giant Sysco, already pre-battered, Robinson said.
But that doesn’t mean restaurants everywhere are buying pre-processed pickles, throwing them in the fryer, and calling it a day. With the increasing popularity of fried pickles has come changes and innovations to its format. The most prevalent divide regarding the snack’s preparation is whether to fry pickle chips (pieces of pickle cut into circles) or whole pickle spears. But there are even variations on that theme, Robinson said, from spear segments to skinnier pickle “fries.”
Restaurants also argue over whether cornmeal or flour creates a superior batter. Dipping sauces range from remoulade to French dressing, and as housemade artisan pickles gain popularity across the country, restaurants more focused on making items from scratch tend to even provide artisan takes on the deep-fried pickle.
William Soo speaks their language. As part of the team behind New York-based kosher shop the Pickle Guys, he’ll help the picklemakers open a restaurant entirely devoted to fried pickles later this spring. The menu is still being developed, but Soo promises a variety of pickle flavor profiles and a variety of sauces to pair with them. “We know pickles — we at least know that — and one of the simplest things to do with them is to fry them,” he said. “We’re just hoping that it works [as a restaurant].”
Meanwhile, Atkins, Arkansas still hasn’t stopped saluting the snack, even more than 50 years later. Since 1962, they’ve paid homage at an annual pickle festival. And those curious about that first recipe should take a trip to Old South restaurant in Russellville, Arkansas, Robinson says. The restaurant once visited by Elvis claims to make their fried pickles using Austin’s original recipe.
Missy Fredrick is Eater's associate cities editor.
Editor: Erin DeJesus