Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bitter Cucumbers--Does Cutting & Rubbing Remove Bitterness?

Old Wives' Tale?

We had a very lengthy discussion about bitter cucumbers last night. This was a big practice in our family, at least on the Czech side. Mom doesn't remember Great-Grandma Hintz (the German side) doing this, and neither do I. (I remember Great-Grandma Hintz's "cottage of tomatoes," though...that's definitely a story all its own and I'll have to remember to cover it in another post).

E.J. remembers her mom doing this (her mom was my great-aunt, Albina). My Czech grandma, Nan and Aunt Albina swore that this helped remove the bitterness in cucumbers. Their parents told them so, and so they continued the practice unfailingly.

The consensus as of last night is this: E.J. still faithfully executes the practice of rubbing. Mom does it only once in a while. I don't do it at all any more because I stopped being a believer some years ago.

This doesn't mean I am shaming my ancestors or being unloyal to them, as the tone in E.J.'s voice suggested when I told her that I don't do it anymore.

I don't do it anymore because I don't believe it works. There. I said it. I don't believe it works because some years back when we had a bountiful explosion of cucumbers in the garden, I did some experimenting on my own.

I noticed that the bitterness was at the stem end most of the time. Sometimes it did travel farther or was even in other areas but for the most part--the stem end was the problem. So I just started cutting off the stem end (and farther up if necessary).

I noticed that when there was bitterness in the cuke, there was usually an area that looked drier and spongey. I thought it might be related. (I also noticed that if I forgot to water the garden and the cucumber vines got too dry, the cukes were almost always bitter).

We didn't have the internet back then and I didn't go tearing off to the library to get into the reference books. I had plenty of cucumbers to study.

Cucumber Pickin' on the World Wide Web

After our lengthy discussion last night, I decided to do a little research and see if I could find some definitive answers about rubbing the cut end of the cucumber to the other end in order to remove bitterness.

It was an interesting search. I found that the practice is not limited to the South. It's all over the U.S. It's not limited to Czechoslovakians, either. There are Germans who engage in this practice. Some Canadians do it. I found some British practitioners, too. I found practitioners in India as well, but in that instance, I found that the family rubbed the cut end on the cuke to get rid of "latex." (Is the word latex in India exchangeable for the English word for bitter? I don't think so but I didn't look into that little tidbit in depth).

There were variations in the way to do it, and different explanations as to why it worked. Some Canadian practitioners said you must cut both ends off and make notches on the ends before rubbing. An American variation stated that you must sprinkle salt on the end before rubbing.

All of the practitioners that I discovered while I was searching were doing this because it had been passed down the family line. I couldn't find any hard scientific data about this practice. (Yes, I even checked "Snopes," but the only discussion about it was limited to the message boards.)

Am I lookin' for cukes in all the wrong places?

I did find some information at Washington State University about removing bitterness from cucumbers. Cut off the stem end and/or peel the cucumber. You can also slice it, salt it and let it sit for a while, then rinse and prepare as normal. No mention of rubbing.

So Does it Work or Not?

I noticed that many people who engage in this practice either claim that the bitterness is the foaming that is produced by the rubbing or that the bitterness is removed by the "capillary effect." The "capillary effect" subscribers claim that the bitterness always runs underneath the skin of the cuke.

Everyone has explanations about why this practice supposedly works and variations of the practice.

Well, I vote no. It doesn't work. I apologize to any ancestors or anyone else that I may be offending or if it seems like I am blaspheming to make this admission, (I guess E.J. thinks I am nothing but a Benedict Arnold), but I just don't believe in this anymore. That doesn't mean that I don't believe in magic, especially "Kitchen Magic," but this? No.

Show me some definite, hard facts and I will change my mind. Find me a white-haired scientist with bushy eyebrows that conducted actual physical experiments on cucumbers and then measured the results with delicate instruments.

Oh, and I have to add: the bitter cukes are most common if you raise them yourself or buy them at farmer's markets and such. The variety used for pickling seem to be the most susceptible. Another "official" site claimed that commercially grown cukes are bred so that the amount of bitter compounds are reduced. (I can't find the site now but I'm sure that this is probably true since we live in a world of "Frankenfood.")

I would love to know the origin of this practice. Does your family do it? Please leave me some feedback. It really is one of those great mysteries. We'll call it: "The Cucumber X-Files." I think this mystery would leave Mulder and Scully in a pickle. Ha ha ha! ;)

Have a great day! :)

                                                   Hot Dog! He's a Pickle Pickin' Puppy!   
                                               (Photo courtesy of Electron at Wikimedia Commons).            


Anonymous said...

Nice blog!

I was digging around for the same question when I ran into your blog. Saved me some work!

I am from India, and this practice is indeed quite common. My mother and grandmothers swear by it.

As far usage of the word 'latex' goes, it is not used for bitter, and the usage is quite weird. The only thing I can think of is that probably the writer wanted to convey some sense of the fact the white foam that comes out is sort of like sap.


Anonymous said...

I'm from Singapore and a lot of housewives in my mother's generation do this too! My aunts and mother also claim they followed this practice from their mother's instructions.

According to this forum post, so do Sicilians and women in South Africa.

I've also been looking around for any study on this but nothing so far. It is amazing how widespread it is though.

Carol Gautreau Bent's Artwork said...

My mother taught me to do this...we live on the North Shore of Massachusetts....and we got the practice from my grandmother, who was an Acadian from Prince Edward Island, Canada. I, too, don't know if the rubbing works!

Anonymous said...

We got into this discussion at a family picnic yestetday, hence my early morning Google search. My mother's family swears by this. She is from Iowa with ancestors from England and France. We also have friends from N Africa that follow this practice. Thank you for the hints. Will try to keep my cute plants well watered.

Loonie said...

I'm from France with a Vietnamese mother, and she taught me to de this. But to her it has nothing to do with bitterness but it's about digestibility. It seems to have been confirmed by a friend of my father's who loves cucumbers but didn't eat them because he could not digest them. Until my father showed him the trick!
I don't know any french people outside of my family who rub the ends of the cucumbers. But know someone else who does since we showed her because she can't eat cucumbers knowing the yucky white foam is still inside!