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Joseph Vlasic: The Pickle King

Published: 7/10/2014
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Vlasic Pickles (Wikimedia Commons / Antonio Cavallo)

Joseph Vlasic, who died 28 years ago this week, took the helm of his family's milk and cheese business just before World War II and turned it into a pickle empire. Vlasic broke new ground by making "hot pack pickles," easily transportable in glass jars and requiring no refrigeration. The pickle industry thrived with the innovation: In 1933 per capita pickle consumption was 2.09 pounds. By 1974, it was 8 pounds per capita, according to the company's website. Today, the average person eats a little more than 9 pounds of pickles each year, according to the New York Food Museum.

To mark the anniversary of Vlasic's death at 82, we offer these fun facts about pickles in general and Vlasic specifically. The list is culled from information found at Vlasic's website and at nyfoodmuseum.org.

1. Pickling, or preserving food by fermenting it in brine or vinegar, is believed to have begun in the Middle East 4,000 years ago with cucumbers grown in India. Pickle consumption was related to strength and beauty. Julius Caesar urged his troops to eat them. Cleopatra said a hearty diet of them kept her looking young.

2. Shakespeare refers to pickles in many of his plays. In Act 5, Scene 1 of The Tempest, for example, one character observes, "How camest thou in this pickle?" The line "Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire and stew'd in brine, Smarting in lingering pickle" can be found in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, Scene 5.

3. The United States is named after a pickle merchant: Amerigo Vespucci sold pickles in his native Spain before getting into the explorer game. When he did venture overseas, he made sure his ships were packed with vitamin C-rich pickles.

4. Evidence of pickling in the New World dates back to the 1600s. In the mid-1600s, much of what is now Brooklyn, New York, was covered with cucumber farms. These were then cured and sold on the streets of New York City.

5. In the 1700s, Thomas Jefferson noted that, "On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally's cellar."

6. Detroit-made Vlasic Pickles took the country by storm in the early 1940s because they did not spoil when being transported. Raw cucumbers were put in jars, covered in hot brine, and then sealed. Pickles produced this way lasted longer than those cured in vats or barrels.

7. Vlasic is sometimes referred to as a "Polish pickle." But Joseph Vlasic was born in Yugoslavia.

8. Vlasic's stork mascot debuted in the 1970s. In some ads, he came bearing a baby, noting Vlasic was "the pickle pregnant women crave" … and "who's a better pickle expert?" In others, he wiggled a pickle like a cigar and noted in his best Groucho Marx imitation Vlasic was that "the best-tasting pickle I ever heard." The "spokesbird" was added to the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame in 2010, joining advertising icons like the Pillsbury Doughboy and Mr. Peanut.

9. In 2000, Philadelphia Eagles football players said they found the energy to beat the rival Dallas Cowboys in a blistering hot September game by fueling themselves with pickle juice. As one player observed after the game, "I may start drinking pickle juice when just sitting home chilling."

10. Today, more than 67 percent of American households eat pickles, consuming more than 2.5 billion pounds annually. Vlasic is now owned by Pinnacle Foods, a New Jersey-based business that produces shelf-stable and frozen foods.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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