Monday, May 25, 2020

The Pickled Lime Project begins; or, more than you ever wanted to know about pickled limes

"Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it too. It's nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else, at recess. If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime. If she's mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn't offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I've had ever so many but haven't returned them, and I ought for they are debts of honor, you know." -from "Amy's Valley of Humiliation", Little Women
Bagsy a pickled lime - Telegraph
from The Telegraph
Pickled limes have long held the fascination of modern readers of Little Women, because they're not a thing most 21st-century people are familiar with. I love food history, and I love literary history, and I work at the Little Women it should come as no surprise that pickled limes are often on my mind. Many many years ago I made them with a group of campers during a museum summer program, and let's just say that it was not particularly successful. Surprisingly, it went way worse than the time we tried to get 7-10 year olds to make pulled toffee (although I probably wouldn't eaten much of that either), likely because they were way less excited about the prospect of hot vinegar and salt than hot sugar. But I've always wanted to try again, and just never quite gotten around to it.

The kitchen at Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House
the kitchen at Orchard House--this is not where I had campers make treats though ;)
Then the new Little Women movie came out, and (in addition to all of the general movie hype being a lot of fun) I ended up spending some extra time with friends who also work at the historic site. We were talking about things from the book that have stuck with us, and that brought pickled limes back to the front of my brain. But I was feeling a little scarred from the first time, and so rather than just attempting a random internet recipe (of which there are many!), I went back to period sources. And eventually, I made some! Or rather, I've started the process. But more on that in a bit--there's research to discuss first!

What were pickled limes, and why were they popular?
When I was in elementary school (aka "Amy's age"), everybody wanted snap bracelets--pieces of warped plastic with patterns and textures on top that would curl around your wrist when you whacked the taught plastic against your arm. Why??? Kids are weird, and I think that's pretty much always been true. And while no amount of research can explain weird kid fads, it's still worth noting that much of the information available about pickled limes comes from import tariff documentation, as pickled limes were being imported from the West Indies (what we would now call the Caribbean). These congressional committee transcripts date both from the early and mid 19th century (where there are long accounts of what was imported and how much the taxes were), and from late 19th and early 20th centuries (when there were changes in import tariffs and a lot of debate over how much pickled limes should be taxed). Other sources include fictional works (such as Little Women) that mention pickled limes, and a few recipes...but there really aren't that many recipes. My hypothesis for this is that pickled limes weren't something typically made at home during the 1860s; as Amy mentions, pickled limes could be purchased individually in candy stores.

It's also worth noting that in several of the sources I read, pickled limes are noted as a food only popular among New England women and children. Other sources mention that they require developing a taste to enjoy them. As described by William Brennan, a Boston importer: "this commodity has but a very limited sale and confined almost exclusively to a few New England states. After limes are immersed in sea water for twenty four hours it causes such a physical change that they are of no commercial value whatever other than as a pickled this form they are consumed mostly by women and children of this section of the country who have acquired the taste for them" (1; emphasis mine). Based on this description, I think I can assume that pickled limes were not wildly popular nationwide, and appear to (at various times) really only have been imported to New England. I think this is important, because I have seen a lot of recipes for "Amy's pickled limes" that start with some variation on "school children everywhere in the 1860s loved pickled limes!" and I don't think this is accurate--I think it's more likely that pickled limes, like many other moments in Little Women, help to root the book in the peculiar yankee culture Louisa May Alcott knew (and often satirized) so well.

stereo view detail: apple vendor, Boston Common, 1860s, via WorthPoint

What did pickled limes taste like?

Let's get this out of the way first: I'm about as sure as I can be based on the sources available that pickled limes as eaten by Amy March were unsweetenedThe earliest set of import records I found that mention pickled limes come from about 1803, but they appear to gain popularity later in the century. By the 1820s there are 3 kinds of imported lime products documented: "Limes: -juice of, -pickled, -preserved in sugar or brandy" (4). Note that here pickled limes are separate from sweet preserved limes, which do exist as their own thing. 

My favorite descriptor of pickled limes (and how they might have tasted in the 1860s) comes from a different fictional work published in Godey's Magazine in 1859. In The Embroidered Handkerchief: Or, How a Piccolo-Maniac was Cured, author Mary Janvrin describes pickled limes as "that choice acidulated 'goody' of which schoolgirls are so fond" (2; emphasis mine). I love this description! For me it calls to mind something sour and addictive even if you aren't sure why you keep eating it. I actually feel this way about some pickles, which might be why it speaks to me so much. Later, Dora (one of the schoolgirls who are the main characters in the story) says "'I always keep a supply on hand, and am going to tease papa to import a cargo of them for my own especial appropriation. George says I'm always eating them; and if I go on, he shall call me 'Lady Weazenface;' they pucker up one's mouth so, you know" (2; emphasis mine). Additionally, a later 1890 description of pickled limes specifically notes that they are unsweetened: "pickled limes are an East India delicacy popular in New England and in Great Britain. They are made of the fresh limes pickled in their own juices and spiced without adding sugar. This pickle is popular with men who used to lived in the tropics or have acquired the taste" (6; emphasis mine). While this description (from a CA farmers' newspaper) doesn't match the brined limes that would have been seen in Boston, I do think the limes Amy ate were unsweetened as well. As Dora describes, they were sour enough to make your face pucker! Additionally, salt amplifies flavor; it's entirely likely that a lime soaked in saltwater would taste more intensely lime-y than salty. 

Finally, I think perhaps one of the key elements here is that the limes used to make pickled limes in the 1860s probably weren't the green limes I can easily buy in the grocery store, but a small, sweeter variety: fully ripened key limes. I say this because every description I found for how limes were harvested and pickled referred to using ripe yellow limes, and the key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) is also known as the West Indian lime or Mexican lime. I might do a separate blog post about limes, but for now I'll just note that "a ripe lime will be sweeter, less acidic, and juicier than an underripe one" (7). So I think we can likely say that pickled limes were sour but pleasant, and I would be curious to see what elements of the lime's flavor are emphasized by an extended saltwater soak! (Unfortunately, I couldn't find any yellow key limes in my local grocery store mid-pandemic. So I used green Bearss limes for this set of experiments.)

west indian
West Indian limes, via UC Riverside College of Natural and Agricultural Science

How were pickled limes made?
During my research, I have come up with 5 different methods for making pickled limes, all from mid 19th or early 20th century sources. However, I think the most likely version of pickled limes to be accurate to what Amy actually eats is just whole limes barreled (or jarred) in saltwater. 

The numerous tariff hearings discussing the import of "pickled limes, or limes in brine" (1, 3) provide some indication that pickled limes were, as stated, pickled by being soaked in saltwater--specifically, seawater. A description from the 1880s describing the lime trade in this region notes the method of "selecting good sound ripe limes and placing them in casks over which is poured salt water or strong brine. The cask is then made perfectly tight and exported. Limes preserved in this manner are invariably sent to Boston. The brine has to be changed frequently during the process before the fruit is properly pickled. The quantity exported in this manner is very small and, like the export of green limes, is not increasing" (5; emphasis mine). (It's interesting to note here that the author makes a distinction between the yellow limes that get pickled and the green limes that are exported as plain fruit.) A second description of the same process from the same period (but focused on the Florida fruit trade) describes "limes for pickling for shipping to distant markets. They should be a bright yellow when picked...Place in tight barrels on the same day they are picked and cover at once with a brine as salted only as sea water then head up tight. Change water two or three times. Limes prepared in this way are ready for use at any time either as pickles or by first freshening in clear water and then other recipes" (8). Based on these descriptions and the hearing transcripts, brined in saltwater seems to be a pretty clear winner for what constitutes a pickled lime in Boston in the 1860s. However, I do think it's interesting to note the line about using pickled limes in other recipes--as I mentioned, I found several other recipes for pickled limes. Most of them start with a saltwater brine, but then you wash or boil the limes before re-preserving them using vinegar, sugar, or both. So while Amy was sucking on plain saltwater-brined limes, I think there's room to hypothesize that grownups might have also done more with them. (Or maybe I'm over-interpreting, but I'm going to try all the recipes anyways.)

Again, the saltwater brine method is important as a uniquely Boston thing--all of the recipes I found describing salt covering or salt packing methods are from other places, while all of the brined recipes I found are from Boston. While of course it's possible other people in non-New England places made pickled limes with brine, the taste for saltwater-preserved limes seems to have arrived from West Indian trade and stuck around more observably in Boston than in other places. For example, both British and Hawaiian sources describe leaving limes in a warm dry place while coated with salt for several days before putting them into jars, where they cure in the salt and their own juice (9, 10). 

Attempting pickled limes
Let's get into what I did! I started by breaking the recipes down into two groups: salt and juice brines, and saltwater brines. (As stated above, I believe the saltwater brines are correct for a Little Women pickled lime, but I also wanted to try all the things.) I had a half dozen limes from the grocery store (green Bearss limes, as noted above), so I decided I wanted to try 4-5 approaches and broke the limes up accordingly (I need more limes, but might wait and try a second batch with more correct limes). I used 3 ingredients: pickling salt, limes, and water.

For the "slit and shove in salt" version, I made 4 shallow vertical slits down the lengths of 2 of the limes, as described in a few recipes (9,10, 11), and filled each cut with pickling salt. Rather than leaving them in the sun, I decided to jar these as described in an 1869 fruit pickling and preserving manual and more modern recipes (12, 13, 14). I will press these down each day to help release juice, then leave them to sit once enough juice is released. Then these will get brined in vinegar.

day 0
For the rest of the recipes, I put whole limes into a saltwater mixture (more on that later). I found I could only comfortably fit 2 limes into my jars, so I filled each jar with water, added salt, and shook. Once the salt was dissolved and no granules were visible in the water, I opened the jars back up and added the limes. These will sit in the pantry (but may move to the fridge because it's supposed to be HOT the next few days) for 3-4 weeks before I do anything else. 

All of this means that next month things will get interesting. My plans for the limes are:

1. Salt packed: once cured in salt and their own juice, brine in vinegar and spices as described in 11 & 14. Pretty straightforward, just not what I think was mostly seen in Boston.

2. Salt brine (plain): whole limes soaked in salt brine and eaten plain--likely what Amy March would have had, based on the description Dora gives in (2), that she's asking her father to import a barrel for her. This implies to me that kids were eating limes straight out of the saltwater brine, and I can't find any mention of new brine or other preservation of the limes once arriving in Boston.

3. Salt brine, then vinegar brine: whole limes soaked in salt brine, boiled/de-salted, and re-pickled in vinegar as in 15 & 16. This seems possible as an at-home use of imported pickled limes when purchased by adults.

4. Salt brine, then vinegar/sugar: whole limes soaked in salt brine, boiled/de-salted, and re-pickled in vinegar and sugar as in 15b. Given all of these recipes are from Boston and mimic imported limes by first brining in salt water, I think it's possible something like this was originally done with imported pickled limes and then adapted when those were less common to get than the plain fruit. I also have a reference in an 1892 article on CA fruit mentioning that it's best with "yellow sugar" in the brine, so I wonder if sugar started getting added when the variety of limes changed too.

5. Salt brine, then sugar syrup: whole limes soaked in salt brine, boiled/de-salted, and soaked in sugar syrup. One of the articles from Boston Cooking School (17) mentioned this method, and it sounds delicious so I wanted to try it. I also noticed a couple of similar recipes in Peterson's Preserving, Pickling, & Canning Fruit Manual (18), which puts the method as early as the 1860s. Whether it was ever done to pickled limes I don't know...but I'm trying it anyway. For science, of course.

1: United States Congress transcripts for the Committee on Ways and Means, 1908-1909
2:  The Embroidered Handkerchief: Or, How a Piccolo-Maniac was Cured, by Mary Janvrin. Godey's Magazine, 1859
3: Tariff hearings, from Miscellaneous documents of the House of Representatives, 1892-1893
4: Rates of Duty on goods, wares, and merchandise imported into the United States; Amendment to the Tariff of 1824, June 1828
5: Limes and Lime Trees in the Leeward Islands, Report by Vice-Consul Galbraith of Antigua,1893
6: Domestic Economy, column, Pacific Rural Press (California) 1890
7: "This is why you should quit passing over yellow limes at the supermarket", The Kitchn, April 24, 2016
8: Florida Fruits and How to Raise Them,1886

Reference Recipes:
9: Pickled Limes (Chinese Method), From Bulletin 49, Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station 1921
Needed: Limes, Coarse salt, Granulated sugar, Large glass jars fitted with air tight caps.
Wash limes thoroughly expose them to sun for two or three hours to dry out surplus water, rub salt into limes while they are warm from the sunning and again once or twice each day for the next four or five days after they have been exposed to the sun. At the end of that time place salted limes in large glass Jars having air tight caps. Sprinkle surface with coarse salt before placing the cap. Expose the jars of pickling limes to the sunlight for two or more months to cure limes thoroughly before opening Jars. When properly cured pickled limes vary in color from light brown to dark mahogany. When serving remove the number of limes desired, sprinkle with granulated sugar one half teaspoonful of sugar to each pickled lime, and then partly mash. They may be served with meat, rice, and the like.

10: "The Lucknow Receipt for Pickling Limes or Lemons", A New System of Domestic Cookery: Founded upon Principles of Economy, London 1842
Bruise the limes or lemons on a stone then throw them into water and place them afterwards in an earthen vessel covered with salt for two or three days. Shaking the vessel frequently take out the limes when they are soft spread them on a cloth and let them dry. The open air is sufficient in India but in England they must be placed at the side of a stove. When dry add vinegar and the juice which came from them when in the earthen vessel. 

11: Pickled Limes, Florida Fruits and How to Raise Them, 1886 
Pickled Limes are prepared exactly according to recipe given for pickled lemons and are equally good...Pickled Lemons. Cut the lemons in quarters not entirely apart and put a teaspoonful of salt in each one. Put them where they will dry either in the hot sun or by the stove when they are dried so that they are black and look good for nothing. Prepare the vinegar with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger root, onion, and a little mustard seed and pour it boiling hot over the lemons. Keep a year before using. They are quite equal to the West India limes. They require more vinegar than other pickles as the lemons will swell out to their natural size.

12: Amy March's Pickled Limes, The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich

13: "What to do with preserved limes, your latest kitchen experiment", Bon Appetite Magazine, August 23, 2016

14: Mrs. C’s Lemon Pickles, Peterson's Preserving, Pickling, & Canning Fruit Manual 1869
They should be small, and with thick rind. Rub them with a piece of flannel; then slit them half down in four quarters, but not through to the pulp ; fill the slits with salt hard pressed in ; set them upright in a pan for four or five days, until the salt melts ; turn them thrice a day in their own liquid, until tender; make enough pickle to cover them, of vinegar, the brine of the lemons, Jamaica pepper and ginger; boil and skim it; when cold, put it to the lemons, with two ounces of mustard-seed, and two cloves of garlic to six lemons. When the lemons are used, the pickle will be useful in fish or other sauces.

15: "Pickled Limes", The Boston Cooking-School Magazine, volume 10, 1910
The limes must first be steeped salted water to remove bitterness cook in water until tender drain in jars with whole spices-a tablespoonful to a quart then cover hot vinegar. Seal as in canning. Without experience the exact of salt needed in the brine and time required for steeping cannot definitely stated. Probably a cup salt to a gallon of water and steeping twelve to twenty four hours would about right.

15b: Sweet Pickled Limes, from the same article as a variation
To a gallon of limes steeped in salted take a gallon of vinegar, three of sugar, one fourth a pound of cinnamon, three ounces of cloves, one ounce of mace. Boil the limes very tender, drain, cover with the liquid and spices heated together then as above.

16: "1901 Recipe for Pickling Limes," The Boston Cooking-School Magazine, volume 17, 1912
 Make a brine strong enough to float an egg and in quantity to cover a dozen limes. Let stand six days stirring the brine each day. Drain and set to boil in two quarts of boiling water. Let boil fifteen minutes. Let drain and become cold. Scald one quart of vinegar, half an ounce of cloves, half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of ginger root, half an ounce of horse radish, and one ounce of white mustard seed and pour over the limes disposed in fruit jars. Close securely. These are best after keeping some months.

17: "Sweet-pickled limes [variation on pickled limes, similar to recipe above from vol 17]," The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, volume 16, 1912
Put the [salt-brined] limes in cold water and let it come to a boil. Cook ten minutes and throw the water away. Repeat the process as long as patience or the kitchen fire holds out. The water should be changed four times at least. Skim them out and put them in a big bowl to cool. Make a thick syrup of sugar and water using a half cup of vinegar to a quart of water. Cook the syrup until it is as thick as molasses. Let it get cold. Prick each lime two or three times with a silver fork. When they and the syrup are cold put them together and let them stand over night. The syrup will then be thinned by the juice of the limes. If it is too watery boil it over again. Put the limes in jars and pour the cold syrup over them. They will keep indefinitely if nobody knows they are in the store closet.

18. Plum Pickles, Peterson's Preserving, Pickling, & Canning Fruit Manual 1869
To every quart of plums, allow one-half pound of sugar, and one pint of best cider vinegar. Melt the sugar in the vinegar, and put spices of all sorts in a fine muslin bag, and boil up with the sugar and vinegar. When the sugar and spiced vinegar boils up, put in the plums, and give them one good boil. If you wish to keep the plums whole, prick them with a needle.


  1. Yay! Great documentation. Looking forward to the results.


  2. Pickled limes have been on my mind recently as I've been re-reading Little Women. Thank you so much for this detailed and informative post! I'm curious to see what is your favorite version of the pickled limes.