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Friday, April 8, 2011

Hunting for Pickled Limes

In the novel Little Women, Louis May Alcott explains that Amy March's popularity depends on her ability to acquire, consume, and distribute pickled limes, a delicacy that was a very fashionable treat of the times. While thoughts of pickled limes no longer cause salivary distress in America's schools, they remain popular with many food bloggers, including one whose experimentation with pickled limes was inspired by Little Women.   In her book, The Joy of Pickling, Linda Ziedrich gives an overview of pickled limes and their place in nineteenth-century New England. Ziedrich writes that in the West Indies, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ripe limes were packed whole in sea water or fresh-made brine and shipped to northeastern U.S. ports in barrels. In 1838, according to the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain, there was "a fair demand in the New York market for pickled limes," but by the late nineteenth century pickled limes were also available in Boston. Ziedrich explains that 

"they were sold from glass jars on top of candy-store counters, and some families even bought them by the barrel. Because the import tariff for pickled limes was quite low - importers fought to keep them classed as neither fresh fruit nor pickle - children could buy them cheaply, often for a penny apiece. Young men and women chewed, sucked, and traded pickled limes at school for decades, making the limes the perennial bane of New England schoolteachers. Doctors tended to disapprove of the limes, too; in 1869 a Boston physician wrote that pickled limes were among the 'unnatural and abominable' substances consumed by children with nutritional deficiencies. Parents, however, seemed generally content for children to indulge themselves in the pickled-lime habit” (p.77) 

Amy's conspicuous consumption of limes connects Alcott's schoolgirls to Caribbean economies and the slave labor that her father was busy fighting. While he fought to free African Americans from slavery in the Southern states, his daughters were busy eating the fruits of oppression!


  1. I liked how you took the time to research such a detail. I wonder how the taste changes after pickling a lime. Maybe I should try one.

  2. In reading Little Women, I never gave the limes a second thought, but this has taught me that sometimes the minor things in the novel can demonstrate something about society at that time and at the very least, it was definitely a fun fact to read about.

  3. Great post! I thought about the pickled limes this time as I read the book and also wondered what they would taste like. Perhaps you should make some and bring them to class for everyone to try :)

  4. I always imagined them more as candied - a bit like dried fruit with sugar. I wonder if they are sweet. If we had thought about it in time, we could have made them for the last day of class.

  5. Great post! I like that you found out that something like that from the book is still relevant today. I wondered about the limes too when I was reading. I'm all for pickled stuff but pickled limes just sounded wrong.