Pickling is nothing new in the South. Once used primarily to preserve food, this method involves introducing foods to a brine (a solution of salt and water) and then storing it in a vinegar solution. Because of the pH level, most bacteria is killed and the pickled food is good for months. And while pickles are the most common result of the process, many folks have gotten more creative by adding spices to the vinegar solution or by pickling the less-than-expected ingredient. Now one can find pickled eggs, watermelon rind, peaches, okra, banana peppers, beets, pole beans, oysters, garlic, pig’s feet, turkey gizzards and even bamboo. You heard right..bamboo!
Bamboo Ladies Bamboo Pickles are made and sold in North Carolina and recently won a national taste test award for local foods from Cooking Light magazine. Says the review:
“If you often find Southern pickles overly sweet, you’ll be blown away by a tart vinegar balance and a texture that’s crisp and yielding, similar to canned hearts of palm but without the metallic aftertaste. Charming, odd, and delicious, they’re a perfect gift for the adventurous foodie.”
The history of bamboo pickles begins with Blanche Ferguson, a government nurse who worked in Panama during the building of the Panama Canal. Instead of the usual souvenirs one might bring home, Ferguson brought back the quickly-growing bamboo plant to see how it would weather the climate in North Carolina. Thanks to ample sunlight and tropic-like humidity, the plant flourished in Wilkes County much like the native kudzu.
Enter Ferguson’s son-in-law, Bill Underwood, who served as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during WWII. He brought home with him the knowledge that bamboo is not just used for flooring or furniture but also for many in Asia, it is an invaluable food source. Upon returning to the South, naturally his first question was “Can we pickle it?”
The answer was a resounding “YES” and the recipe for pickling bamboo was shared with neighbors throughout the county. Where there was once roughly seven bamboo plants in a yard, suddenly there grew 3 acres and is now the primary crop for The Bamboo Ladies Bamboo Pickles company, started by a granddaughter of an original pickler who sought out a new career after 20 years of a corporate financing career.
Carla Faw Squires grew up helping her grandmother, Johnsie Walsh, pickle bamboo and when she decided to make a career of it, Squires took it one step beyond the family recipe and went to pickle school at North Carolina State University where she studied chemistry and microbiology. Each May, she joins friends and family to harvest and shuck the bamboo. They then slice the bamboo to resemble a banana to produce bamboo rings.
The bamboo rings are then delivered to Blue Ridge Ventures, a food business incubator, where 1500 – 2500 jars of bamboo pickles are produced within six weeks. So far, Squires has sold out every year.
Unlike the bothersome kudzu that roams the South, bamboo is proving to be a valuable crop for at least one part of the United States. Perhaps with this ingenuity, more regions will begin to see bamboo as the truly potential cash crop that it is.
For more bamboo-inspired recipes, visit Green Earth News’ section on Bamboo Flavors!