Ats Jaar: Possible Origins of the Practice of Pickling in the Antebellum American South

A little prickle of recognition, a sense of déjà vu — that’s what happened when I turned to page 86 of A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1770 (1984, edited by historian Richard J. Hooker*).

There it was: “Ats Jaar, or Pucholilla.”

My first thought was, “What is an Indian (as in India) pickle recipe doing in a cookbook from colonial South Carolina?”

And then I read this, in a footnote provided by the editor:

The origin or meaning of the words Ats Jaar (Ats Jarr in the table of contents) have not been discovered by this editor.

Such a comment forces a point: culinary historians need to know as much as possible about the world’s diverse cuisines, not only their particular specialty. It just can’t be any other way if they are to interpret both old written recipes and modern ways of cooking dishes.

Hooker suggests that “pucholilla” is none other than piccalilli and goes on to say that he traced the recipe to a similar one in The Carolina Housewife, by Sarah Rutledge, who called it Atzjar. He also found piccalilli-like recipes in Briggs (The English Art of Cookery, 1788 — the actual title is The English Art of Cookery, According to Present Practice) and Glasse (The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747).**

Harriott Pinckney Horry’s recipe is as follows:

Take Ginger one Pound, let it lie in Salt and Water one night, then scrape it and cut it in thin slices, and put it in a Bottle with dry Salt and let it stand until the Rest of the Ingredients are ready. Take one Pound of Garlick divide it in Cloves and past it. Take small Sticks of about two or three Inches long, and Run them through the Cloves of Garlick. Salt them for three Day’s, then wash them, and salt them again and let them stand three day’s longer then salt them and Put them in the sun to Dry. Take cabbages cut them in Quarters and salt them for three Day’s then press the Water out of them and put them in the Sun to Dry. Take long Pepper [cayenne] Salt it and dry it in the Sun take ½ a pint of Mustard Seed, Wash it very Clean, and lay it to Dry, When it is very Dry bruise half of it in a Mortar take an Ounce of Termarick [turmeric] bruised very Fine, put all these Ingredients into a Stone Jar, and put one Quart of the strongest Vinegar to 3 Qts. of small. Fill the Jar 3 Quarters full, and supply it as often as you see Occasion.  After the same Manner you may do Cucumbers, Mellons, Plumbs, apples, Carrots, or any thing of that sort. They are to be put all together, and you need never empty the Jar, but as the Season comes in dry the things and put them in, and fill them up in Vinegar. Be Carefull, no Rain or Damp comes to them for that will make them Rott.

John Martin Taylor discusses Ats Jaar on his blog, Hoppin’ John’s (scroll all the way to the bottom to read the section on Ats Jaar), and attributes the Ats Jaar recipe to the spice and slave trade, particularly noting the influence of the Dutch and Java in the spread of the recipe. (Taylor provides a modern recipe for those interested.) He mentions the link to the Indian word “achar” or “achaar,” but dwells on the Dutch influence as having influenced the use of the double “a.” The fact of the matter is that the Hindi term used for pickles is “achaar.”  Hence, the double “a” appears to not be limited to just the Dutch, as Taylor suggests.  Neelam Batra, in 1000 Indian Recipes (2002), spells it as “achaar.” Other Indian authors like Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni go with “achar.” A modern cookbook published in Britain uses the spelling “achaar” in the tile. In Indonesia, “acar” also conveys the meaning of pickle, and cookbook author Sri Owen includes a long chapter on “acar” in her Indonesian Regional Food & Cookery (London, 1994).

The importance of fermentation, pickling, preserving, salting, and curing dims these days, as we feast on fresh food, carbon footprint or not, thanks to international trade. But imagine a ship setting out, facing a long voyage. The discovery of a new, tasty way of preserving vegetables caught the attention of slavers and whalers and others, to be sure.

Modern cookbook of achaar recipes

That English cookbooks may well have contributed more than a direct link to the Carolina slave trade occurs to me, because Richard Brigg’s recipe sounds almost exactly the same as Harriott’s, down to the very same words. And it looks like Briggs may have “borrowed” the recipe from Hannah Glasse. Verbatim.***

Take a look at Brigg’s recipe:

Indian Pickle, or Picca Lillo.

TAKE a pound of race-ginger, and lay it in water one night; then scrape it, .cut it in thin slices then put to it some salt, and let it stand in the Sun to dry; take two ounces of long pepper, and .prepare it as the ginger, a pound of garlick, cut in thin slices and salted, and let it stand three days ; then wash it well, Salt it again, and let it stand three days longer ; then wash it well, drain it, and put it in the sun to dry; take a quarter of a pound of mustard seeds bruised, and half a quarter of an ounce of turmeric; put there ingredients, when prepared, into a large stone or glass jar, with a gallon of good white wine vinegar, stir it very often for a fortnight, and tie it up close.

In this pickle you may put white cabbage cut in quarters, and put it in a brine of salt and water for three days; then boil fresh salt and water, and just put in the cabbage to scald ; press out the water, and put it in the sun to dry, in the same manner you must do cauliflowers, cucumbers, melons, apples, French beans, plums, or any sort of fruit; but take care they are well dried before you put them into this pickle. You need never empty the jar, but as the pickles are in season; put them in, and supply them with vinegar as often as there is occasion: If you would have your pickle look green, leave out the turmeric, colour [Glasse says “green” instead of “colour”] them as usual, and put them into this pickle cold. In the above you may pickle walnuts in a jar by themselves: put the walnuts in without any preparation, tied close down, and kept some time.

One wonders if perhaps someone read the recipe out loud and Harriott copied it as she heard, because if she copied it directly from a copy of Briggs’s or Glasse’s book, that might account for the spelling and other quirks in her version.

The preserves so often discussed as being a typical part of colonial cooking were not simply adornments to the table, though their colors could dazzle. No, those foods linked people to a frozen or dried-out or sea-swept earth where nothing grew and would not for months.

Pikliz (Photo credit: Trina Sargalski)

Interestingly enough,  in Haiti, cooks make pikliz, or pickles quite like Ats Jaar. The spices in question are black peppercorns and cloves, not turmeric and mustard seeds. Of course, this dish may be related to the presence of Americans in Haiti early in the 20th century, many from the American South.

*Hooker wrote The Book of Chowder and Food and Drink in America: A History, along with more standard works on American history like The American Revolution: The Search for Meaning.

**Briggs’s and Glasse’s books appeared in many booksellers’ advertisements in The Virginia Gazette (published in Williamsburg from 1736 – 1780), obviously greatly influencing the kitchens of the times.

*** On the plagiarizing of recipes, see Stephen Mennell, “Plagiarism and Originality – Diffusionism in the Study of the History of Cookery,” Petits Propos Culinaires 68: 29-38, 2001; and Jennifer Stead, “Quizzing Glasse: or Hannah Scrutinized,” Petits Propos Culinaires 13: 9-24 and 14: 17-30, 1983. Henry Notaker added his take on the subject in “Comments on the Interpretation of Plagiarism,”  Petits Propos Culinaires in the July 2002 issue.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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