How Southern Fried Pickles Took Over Restaurant Menus Across The Country

From experiment to ubiquitous bar snack.

crispy fried pickles in a basket with ranch dipping sauce
Photo: Photographer Victor Protasio, Food Stylist Ruth Blackburn, Prop Stylist Christine Keely

Fried pickles may be the quintessential bar snack nationwide, but the origins began in the South. Of course, like any good food history story, the actual origin is always in debate.

In this case, it seems like fried pickles were popularized by the Duchess Drive-In in Arkansas. In 1960, owner Bernell Austin experimented his way into the popular snack by dipping pickles into catfish batter. The story doesn't come as a surprise as the restaurant was located across from the Atkins Pickle company plant.

Dr. Julia Skinner, a food historian with expertise in pickling, does often wonder if there were other similar experiments in the South as well.

"We love to fry things, and surely someone prior to the 1960s had experimented with battering and frying pickles. But this is the earliest verifiable story we have," she says. "Like a lot of food history, we just don't have records of every single instance of it happening."

In a 2011 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Austin's son admitted the idea wasn't new, just that his dad "thought he could do it better." The family still serves up the famous family recipe of fried pickles at Atkins Picklefest, even after Bernell's passing.

Mississippi also calls dibs on the pickles at Hollywood Café in Tunica, but those claims aren't made until closer to 1970. They did make fried pickles very popular in their area, however.

State fairs, known for serving many a fried item, also helped perpetuate the popularity. Plus, newspaper articles like the one in Oakland for "French fried pickles" helped take the idea nationally.

Eventually, fried pickles started to make their way to the menus of barbecue joints and sports bars nationwide, a decade or two ago. Now, they can be found as an appetizer just about anywhere.

"I don't know what the catalyst was, but it kind of reminds me of the buffalo wing: Decades ago, when a bar owner had to make a snack, quickly, and tossed together what became the buffalo wing, I'm sure she had no idea it would take off like it did," says Skinner. "I imagine the same is true with fried pickles."

These days, you'll find a variety of twists on the fried pickle. You'll see them in spears, slices, or chips, most often served with ranch dressing, sometimes with a remoulade, and in the South, some people use ketchup as a dipper.

But not all fried pickles are created equally. Ask anyone and it all comes down to the batter, the secret that separates a good fried pickle from an incredible one.

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