I had made a grave error.

“Do you have memories of eating pickled onions?” I asked in a post on the Facebook group “Baltimore Past & Present Photos.” I had shared a photo of a jar of whole sour onions I had purchased at Baltimore’s oldest Italian deli.

I was quickly — and repeatedly — corrected by members of the more than 89,000-person-strong Facebook group: In Charm City, they’re called onion pickles, not pickled onions.

“Every corner grocery store sold them,” reminisced one commenter. “The cost was 3 cents in the late 40s. Price went up to 5 cents in the 50s.” One user shared that his ex craved them during pregnancy; he remembered running into men-only “stag bars” to find them. “I still get them when I can find them,” said another, noting that they are available at Greene’s Family Butcher Shop in Kingsville. Others talked about purchasing them at Geresbeck’s in Essex, or decades ago in Lexington Market.

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The conversation reinforced a foodie divide. There are two types of Baltimoreans: Those who know all about the tart and briny snack with a flavor that’s the gustatory equivalent of a slap in the face, and those who don’t. Typically, it’s the lifelong residents, whose roots go generations back, who are in the know. They rank them right up there with lemon sticks and pit beef sandwiches in the local Food Hall of Fame.

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“You can’t be from Baltimore and not have had an onion pickle,” said Brittney Howard, who calls the treats “addictive.” She lives in Owings Mills now but grew up getting them in plastic bags at the corner store in Baltimore, and her grandmother remembers when they were sold in big barrels.

So does Vince Fava. The 59-year-old owner of Trinacria, a Paca Street deli that dates back to 1908, said onion pickles have been a staple for as long as he can remember, along with the olives the store still carries by its cash register. “Everything came in big barrels,” he said. Now they’re sold in smaller jars. “Everything changes.”

“It’s funny because the newer generation, they don’t buy them,” Fava said. “The people my age, they know about them.” Older customers often come to the shop from out of town and reminisce about a favorite snack of their childhood, he said. “A guy was in here last week, he bought three gallons.”

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Thirty-year-old Howard also stocks up on them, buying the snacks “six at a time.” Known mostly for her irreverent and expletive-filled video reviews of local restaurants, Howard decided to mix things up one day when she filmed a TikTok about onion pickles instead. She ended up posting multiple videos about the Baltimore delicacy, including demonstrating the proper technique for eating them (you peel back the layers, not bite into it like an apple). Together, her videos about onion pickles have amassed more than 900,000 views on TikTok, and she’s heard from viewers in states such as Oklahoma, Georgia and Michigan, who are clamoring to try them. But they’re nearly impossible to find outside of Maryland.

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“It’s crunchy and loud and smelly … but it’s worth it,” Howard said.

Brittney Howard, 30, of Owings Mills, said people from across the country messaged her about her onion pickles videos. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

I’ve been a resident for seven years, and felt somewhat validated in my onion pickle ignorance when I reached out to Kara Mae Harris, a Baltimorean who has developed a near-encyclopedic knowledge of regional food specialties in the course of writing her blog, Old Line Plate. She has digitized tens of thousands of local recipes dating back centuries, yet didn’t realize onion pickles were a “Baltimore thing” until we spoke.

But the city, she pointed out, has a long history of pickling. As early as the 1800s, it was home to large-scale pickling operations such as William Bodman’s Pickling House and Vinegar Depot, which filled Howard Street with its pungent aromas. In the old days, “people pickled everything,” she said.

Before the globalization of the food industry, pickling fruits and vegetables was how one got vitamins through the winter. An 1845 guide on housekeeping published in Baltimore includes a recipe for pickled onions, as well as pickled melons, walnuts, tomatoes, cabbage, pork and cherries (“a little sugar improves the pickle,” it reads).

And Charm City residents have an appetite for the sour. Harris pointed to sour beef, a German dish that became popular citywide. There’s also sauerkraut, a staple of immigrant cuisine that today is a must-have on Thanksgiving tables, as she chronicles in her forthcoming book.

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Baltimoreans’ preference for the phrase “onion pickles” over “pickled onions” also didn’t strike Harris as odd. She’s found recipes for “tomato pickles” and “cucumber pickles” in historic cookbooks.

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After my journey through onion pickle history, it was time to taste them for myself — and to have my co-workers sample them, too.

In a shared kitchen next to The Baltimore Banner newsroom, I scooped a baseball-size onion pickle from a jar, trying not to get knocked over by the smell.

“That tastes like what I assume you preserve bodies in,” said my editor Caitlin Moore, a Delaware native.

But Uhmar Alston, an executive assistant at The Banner who was born and raised in Baltimore, was a total fan. He reminisced about how he looked forward to his nightly onion pickle after getting off work at a manufacturing plant years ago, when nothing hit the spot at 2 a.m. like an orange soda, onion pickle and a chocolate eclair, he said.

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He peeled back a layer of the tangy treat and bit in: “Perfect.”


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