We’ve Reached Peak Pickle: How Did We Get Here—And Can We Recover?

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If I were judged solely by my Instagram account, the most noteworthy—and controversial—thing I did in 2022 was…light a candle. A gel candle that happened to look just like a jar of Vlasic pickles.

“Why…just WHY?!”

“Obsessed—but what does it smell like?”

“That is horrifying. Where did you get it?”

The DMs came flooding in. Before long, I hosted an impromptu Instagram Stories AMA, just to deal with the endless flood of questions. (Yes, it smells like dill. No, it doesn’t make your house reek of vinegar. Yes, it’s the same size as a regular jar of pickles.) The pickle candle, in question, was part of a collaboration between Vlasic and cheeky lifestyle brand Candier in honor of National Pickle Day. At $29 a pop, it cost far more than your typical jar of brined cucumbers—and it sold out almost immediately.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Sarah Letson, Vlasic brand manager, told me. I agreed—and felt strangely validated that it wasn’t just my circle of friends who were fascinated (and OK, some repulsed) by it. But the fandom triggered a larger conversation: How did we get to pickle candles?

Are We Getting *More* Obsessed with Pickles?

Pickles themselves are nothing new. They date back to 2030 BC, according to PBS, with the kosher dills we know and love introduced to America by Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s. While a spear has been the go-to sandwich companion for decades, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the snack took on a life of its own.

As the Brooklyn hipster movement took hold, so did artisanal takes on everyday foods, with pickles at the upscale food market forefront. Small-batch pickling and elevated takes on flavors caught the attention of The New York Times and other outlets. Suddenly, pickles were the sort of experience you sought out—and were willing to drop $10+ a jar for.

Then, it seemed like pickles had peaked, but really, interest only snowballed. By 2018, picklemania hit an almost cartoonish degree, with pickles joining sriracha, bacon and, befuddlingly, unicorn as its own flavor profile. Pickle-flavored popcorn, candy canes and the like hit stores everywhere. Sonic sold a pickle-flavored slush. At the time, I worked for a food website where we churned out a pickle-related recipe per week just to keep up with demand. We realized we’d tapped into a niche, yet fervent, market, but sometime after dropping pickle cupcakes on the universe (part joke, part triple-dog dare to our audience), we felt like we jumped the shark. We moved on to other trends. However, a closer look at Google search data reveals that while we tired of pickles, the world did not.

Every summer, searches for pickles spike, but they’ve been steadily climbing in overall search volume since 2004. What’s more, Yelp predicts pickle-flavored foods to be one of the top trends of 2023, after seeing searches climb 55 percent this past year. (Fittingly, Sonic brought back its pickle slush for the first time since 2018 this past summer.)

Part of the intrigue is the distinct flavor profile: It’s mouth-puckering, tangy, bright and salty. And then there’s the crunch of the pickle. Plus, it’s low-calorie, a surprisingly solid source of vitamin K and is packed with probiotics to aid digestion.

“Most pickle lovers tend to recall the first time they tried a pickle, usually on a fast-food burger. From there, they constantly seek out that tart, tangy, & crispy flavor unique to pickles,” Letson says.

burger with pickles, fried pickles with ranch dressing, ice cream with pickle on top
How a pickle obsession is born—and gets out of control (PHOTOS: Simon McGill/Cappi Thompson/Heather Winters/Getty Images)

Pickles are polarizing—some love them, some hate them. And, as a result, when you admit you adore them, you become part of a distinct (if unofficial) club. You share a bond, and so, a fandom forms.

“I think there is a sense of identity attached to liking pickles because it’s such an odd flavor,” explains Alexis Ratliff, brand marketing specialist at Van Holten’s, a brand known for selling everything from jumbo pickles-in-a-pouch to Pickle-Ice, or pickle-flavored frozen pops.

Admitting you like something so universally known—“every culture has some form of pickled product,” Ratliff says—yet unique sticks with people. Like the friend who can quote every line from all nine seasons of The Office or the coworker who can’t get through a meeting without mentioning her love of pickleball (which, interestingly, has nothing to do with brined veggies), it gives people a way to label you, connect with you and provide a go-to gift idea for you for every birthday and holiday (hence, pickle candles).

So, Where Is the Pickle Trend Headed?

As the humble pickle transformed from everyday snack to full-blown fandom, so did the need to push the envelope. Er, cucumber.

“Extreme flavors of all kinds are booming right now. Consumers are not only tolerating bolder flavors, like spice and sour, but they expect it,” Ratliff says. “People will quite literally take our Hot Mama Pickle-In-A-Pouch and shove it full of Taki’s, dip it in chamoy and finish it off with a sprinkle of Tajin powder. It’s not enough for your products to just be good anymore—they have to explode with flavor and get people excited.”

As a result, Van Holten’s launched Warheads Extreme Sour pickles this November, sparking dozens of TikToks as people take the #sourpicklechallenge. Vlasic is also seeing rising interest in bold flavors—the swicier, or sweet-and-spicier, the better—and launched two flavors to meet that demand: Xtreme Heat and Sweet Heat Chips.

In watching the #sourpicklechallenge videos—and gauging the reactions from the infamous pickle candle—one thing is clear: Pickle people are in on the joke. They know what they’re into may irk people, and they don’t care. (Some may like them more because of it.) They like pushing boundaries and trying new things, and if the latest innovations are any indication, pickle lovers may find themselves, well, in a pickle: What happens when your beloved flavor becomes so loaded with flavor it no longer tastes like the very thing you were drawn to? Only 2023 will tell.