Phillip Waller | Land of Plenty, Will Food Save The Delta Or Be Its Death
Only in the Delta would folks think to soak their pickles in Koolaid, then freeze them. The emergence of a new food addiction.
“I just don’t get how they eat them,” said Clarksdale Police Detective Charles Sledge. His personal distaste for Kool-aid pickles, or “Koolickles,” as they are known in the Delta, hasn’t stopped him from making money off of them.
People either love them or hate them. After all, they come in a range of colors that could be graded in shades of neon, and in flavors that can only be described as … well, you either love them or hate them.
“People eat them because they’re sweet,” said Cyndi Young, who works behind the counter at a Clarksdale Double Quick, where the Koolickles are on display in a jar, where the addicts can spot them. On this day, the flavor is green apple, the shade a fluorescent green.
Sitting at a table in his dining room, Sledge explained that a Koolickle starts out life like any other pickle, but after soaking in a brine of double-strength Kool-Aid and cups of sugar, they take on their distinctive flavor. “The texture of the pickle is the same, it just picks up the Kool-Aid flavor,” said Sledge. “You know they’re ready by their color. The color is like blood.”
In small Delta towns, you can find them at the corner Double Quick, or if you know a little more of the local scene, you can stop in at a neighbor’s for a bloody red fruit punch or neongreen apple pickle spear to go with your bag of flaming hot Cheetos and grape Faygo. During the Delta blues season, you can get your pickle fix at food stands like Detective Sledge’s that pop up along the highways leading into Clarksdale.
No one quite knows when the Koolickle craze started, but Sledge figures that it started south of Clarksdale in Leland. They burst into national notoriety in 2007, when John T. Edge, author and director of the Ole Miss-based Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote about them in The New York Times. “Depending on your palate and perspective,” Edge wrote, “they are either the worst thing to happen to pickles since plastic brining barrels or a brave new taste sensation to be celebrated.”
The pucker of the pickles is something that suits the variety of tastes in the predominantly African-American community in the Delta. “(Kool-Aid pickles) are just like the flaming hot Cheetos,” said Valeria Jones, manager of the same Clarksdale Double Quick. “It’s the sweet and the vinegar they like,” she said.
“You get both tastes all in one package,” said Young. Sledge remembers a time when pregnant women pushed peppermints into pickle spears or kids sprinkled dry Kool-Aid on their pickles to get the distinctive flavor well before the marinated variety came into vogue. “I used to think it was just a women’s and children’s food, but you’ve got a lot of men eating them too,” Sledge said.
Vendors like Sledge make a small pile of money selling the pickles to tourists and locals alike alongside other Delta specialties like chili burgers and Ro-Tel fries, sort of a Delta version of Nachos where fries are smothered in melted Velveeta and canned tomatoes shot through with green chilies.
“I’m lucky to get out there (to his food stand) two times a month with my schedule, but the pickles sell out every time,” said Sledge. “One time people thought there was a roadblock in front of my stand, there were so many cars waiting to turn in.”
The Indianola- based Double Quick convenience store chain has been taking its share of the profits, too, by selling the pickles since 2007, with some stores now displaying posters calling them “Pickoolas.” The pickles are made fresh at each store and left to marinate before being sold for 50 cents per half. The sales became so profitable, that Double Quick applied for a trademark.
Sledge sat down with me to reveal 10 simple steps to make my own Kool-Aid pickles.
Police detective Charles Sledge mixes up a new batch.
How to: 10-Step Koolickles
• Mount Olive Kosher Dills (80 oz.)
• 2 Fruit punch Kool-aid packets
• 3 (or more) cups of sugar
Step 1: Take an 80 0z. jar of Mount Olive Kosher Dills and pour off the pickle juice into a baking pan or bowl. You’ll want to keep the juice for later. Sledge says that they have to be Mount Olive because the texture is just right.
Step 2: Put the pickles into another baking pan or bowl separate from the juice.
Step 3: Tear open the fruit punch Kool-Aid packets and pour both of them into the now empty pickle jar. You’ll probably want some gloves. Detective Sledge says that he knows people who dye their hair with this stuff. The fruit punch flavor is by far the most popular and is the only one that Sledge makes.
Step 4: Open your bag of sugar, portion out three cups and pour it in the jar. Sledge uses Domino brand, but any brand should work. Just make sure that no matter what brand you use that you use a lot. Sledge says you can’t go wrong with the sugar.
Step 5: Pour in just enough water to the sugar/ Kool-Aid mix to make it “liquidy.” The sugar should be partly dissolved in the water.
Step 6: Stir your water/sugar/Kool-aid mixture to help the sugar dissolve.
Step 7: Slice your pickles lengthwise using a knife. Be careful not to cut your fingers in the process. The fruit punch Kool-Aid may mask your injuries, but it’s best not to tempt fate.
Step 8: Place the cut pickles into the jar.
Step 9: Pour the pickle juice from your pan back into the jar until the jar is full.
Step 10: Close the lid and give the jar a shake. Let your pickles marinate for five days. After they take on that fleshy red color you know that they’re ready to eat. Enjoy! (Or not. Especially if, like me, you are not a pickle eater.)
–Story and photos by Phillip Waller, originally appeared in Land of Plenty: Will Food Save The Delta Or Be Its Death, a depth report by the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at The University of Mississippi.