Leland, Miss. Mississippians have a strange relationship with pickles. Or perhaps, Mississippians have a relationship with strange pickles.
It's not just that they love their pickles, though they do eat an awful lot of them. Rather, it's what they do to the pickles they eat. As in, marinating them in Kool-Aid. Or battering and deep frying them.
"What's the deal with that?" asks a laughing Jane Stern, who with her husband, Michael, chronicles American food culture. "The deal with that is that Southerners will fry anything that will fit in a pan."
While the South as a whole accounts for some serious pickle consumption, it is the Mississippi Delta, a region better known for its blues music, that takes credit for first tossing pickles into Kool-Aid and the deep fryer.
"The backdrop is that the South has always been a pickling culture. Pickled okra. Pickled watermelon rind. Pickled peaches and fruits," says William Ferris, a professor of Southern history and folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
And perched along the Mississippi River, the Delta region has always seen more of a cultural ebb and flow than other, more inland parts of the South, he says. It's created a culture of risk taking, from gambling to food.
"The Delta we might consider a frontier experience within the South," Ferris says. "It's kind of the outer edge of Southern culture in many ways. That edginess allows things to happen there that would not be possible in other parts of the South."
And so while jerky may be de rigueur at gas stations and convenience stores elsewhere in the country, in the Delta, it's Kool-Aid pickles soaking in giant mayonnaise jars by the cash register that draw customers, especially children.
"It's all about the taste and the crunch," 16-year-old George Birkley, of Greenville, Miss., says of Kool-Aid pickles. He has been eating them since he was 4.
The Indianola-based Double Quick chain of convenience stores began selling Kool-Aid pickles in its shops about three years ago after company officials noticed them at independent grocers, as well as being sold by children as school fundraisers.
The company dubbed them Koolickles and applied for a trademark, says Rick Beuning, the company's director of food service. Each of the company's 30 shops sells about 25 Koolickles a day for 50 cents each.
Of course, many people make their own, using simple recipes that involve brining dill pickles in sweetened Kool-Aid. The overwhelming favorite Kool-Aid pickle flavor? Red - which could be either strawberry, cherry or tropical punch.
"If I make them and eat them, I eat too many. So I make them for other people," says Osie Miller, 60, a bus driver from Greenville.
Bridget MacConnell, a spokeswoman for Kool-Aid parent Kraft, says the company was unaware of the existence of Koolickles.
"It was news to me," she said.
Fried dill pickles
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
4 large, crisp dill pickles, cut into 3/4-inch chips
In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the buttermilk mixture.
In a medium cast-iron skillet, heat about 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees. A few at a time, dip the pickle chips into the batter and fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Set on paper towels to drain excess oil. Serve hot.
46-ounce (1 quart 14 ounces) jar whole dill pickles
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
2 packets red Kool-Aid (such as cherry flavored)
Drain and discard the juice from the pickle jar. Remove the pickles from the jar and cut each one in half lengthwise. Return the pickles to the jar and set aside.
In a large measuring cup, combine the sugar, water and Kool-aid. Mix until the sugar has completely dissolved. Pour enough of the liquid into the pickle jar to cover the pickles. Discard any excess.
Cover the jar and refrigerate at least 24 hours.