“Isn’t it weird how cucumbers don’t have spikes on them anymore?” my partner asked me.
“Cucumbers don’t have spikes,” I said, as I picked up a cucumber from the vegetable display at Whole Foods. “Cucumber have never had spikes. I have never encountered a grocery-store cucumber with spikes”
“They do,” he insisted. “ Well, they did. The cucumbers definitely had spikes when I was a kid. “
We stared at each other. It was a moment of perfect generational incomprehension. I was born in 1988. He was born in 1982. And apparently, sometime between when he was a little kid and when I was a little kid, grocery-store cucumbers ceased to be spiky. Or did they? Was this one of those massively unsettling Berenstain Bears moments, a strange generational fillip in memory, something we probably shouldn’t speak of ever again?
I had to find out. The first step was, naturally, asking social media. My partner posted on Metafilter and received 18 answers. People who grew up in the 70s and 80s in New England and in Canada and in the UK said that they had no memories of grocery store cucumbers with spines. Someone in their late 40s did recall something like “prickers” on store-bought cucumbers purchased in New England, although the poster noted they were easy to wipe off with one’s hand.
The evidence was inconclusive and utterly unscientific – but interesting nonetheless. Apparently, if someone did remember encountering a spiked cucumber, they had to be at least over the age of 35. I do not agree with those tight-lipped middle-aged people who maintain that millenials have had easy and care-free lives, but I will admit that in this one, extremely specific instance, they are right: people my age have never accidentally pricked themselves on a supermarket cucumber. Most of us are in fact unaware that cucumbers have spikes at all, which is a little bit embarrassing, though I think not nearly as embarrassing as not knowing, like Baby Boomers, that college is much more expensive than it used to be.
We are so unaware of their true spiky nature that many of us are startled – shocked – when we grow them ourselves and are confronted with cucumbers bristling with spines. There is, I’ve discovered, sort of a mini-genre of advice givers telling younger gardeners that their cucumbers have not actually mutated. “Your cucumbers are perfectly normal,” a columnist reassured one nervous spikey-cuke grower on the ThriftyFun website in 2006, in the sort of tone that is typically used when you’re calming down a tween who is embarrassed by the symptoms of puberty.
But if we’ve sort-of established that the Great Cucumber De-Spiking took place somewhere in the 1990s, how was it done? And why? The “how” part is easy. The flawless green water-crunchers you see at the grocery store, stacked up in perfect lines, are another marvel of denatured marketing, just like artificially-ripened tomatoes and aggressively waxed shiny apples. Most of the cucumbers that you see at the grocery store are varieties that do have spines in their natural form. While there are spineless varieties, grocery stores don’t seem to prioritize buying them.
There are in fact a dizzying variety of cucumbers, vastly more diverse than the mundane pole and English cucumbers that are present at every American grocery stores. Unsurprisingly, some of these cucumbers have spines. Cucumbers are part of the Cucurbit family that is shared by melons, pumpkins, and squash, and they’re native to India and Western Asia. Gardeners have been cultivating and devouring them for approximately 3,000 years. According to the University of Missouri, ancient Egyptians would make a “weak liquor” by cutting a hole in a cucumber, stirring its insides up with a stick, then plugging the hole and burying it again. I’m sure some organic-food blogger will try this immediately, and I want to know about it if they do. I think.
Cucumber varieties are seemingly endless: there’s an entire Freaky Cucumber world out there to discover. (If you need a hobby). There’s the lemon cucumber, which does look eerily like a Meyer lemon, and the exceedingly long Chinese “Suyo Long” variety, which garden catalogs advise you to allow to “sprawl on the ground for circular shapes.”
There are ghostly white Armenian cucumbers, and cream-colored “crystal apple” cucumbers, which resemble a majestic fairy-tale fruit: grow these and confuse and baffle your friends! There’s a green-serpent cucumber that dwarfs small children, a tiny grape-shaped cucumber amusingly called the “Mexican Sour Gherkin,” and the majestic maroon Gagon cucumber from Bhutan, which looks like it might just come to life spontaneously and eat you.
Some cucumbers even sprout little hairs instead of spines: I firmly believe that an unshorn, hairy cucumber is way more problematic than a spiney one. Imagine biting into a *hairy* cucumber in a salad. Would you ever emotionally recover? (In case you’re desperate to have this experience, for some perverse reason, you can buy hairy cucumber seeds on eBay).
This dizzying kaleidoscope of cucumber varieties is often divided up into “pickling” and “slicing:” varieties. The “pickling” type, according to this source, are more likely to have spines than the slicing variety. You can see the “spine scars” on the skin of pickled cucumbers, which are larger than the spine scars left on the skin of cucumbers meant for slicing. Commercial cucumber cultivars all have either black or white spines: white spined cucumbers have a slow rate of development and stay green and supple longer than their black-spines counterparts, while the black-spines variety turn yellow faster but produce larger fruits.
Cucumber spines are properly referred to as “trichomes,” and they serve a number of functions if you are a cucumber, including protecting plants from stress, ultraviolet light, and asshole herbivores. Per a few scientific papers I found, Chinese cucumber-buyers actually prefer their cucumbers to have spikes, which means that our weird American preferences for smooth and denatured cucumbers are not the international norm. (Surprise!)
So how does one de-spine a truculent cumber, anyway? In the dark ages when Grocery Stores Cucumbers Had The Spines, you had to remove them before you peeled or pickled your cucumber – most people don’t want to choke their neighbors and loved ones to death on dangerous prickle-cucumbers. This can be done by running a sharp knife blade over the cucumber, or even rubbing them vigorously with a towel: the spines come right off, and nature’s defense mechanisms are defeated again.
But how is this de-spiking done on a mass scale for grocery stores? I found it bizarrely difficult to find concrete information on how grocery store cucumbers are despiked, and I suppose I’m in need of an assist from a good agricultural student. The long, slender shrink-wrapped English or “European Greenhouse ” cucumbers you find at the store barely have spikes to begin with.
The thick-skinned “American slicing cucumber” or “Pole” cucumber – you know, the nasty ones, bred for longevity rather than taste – are somewhat more likely to have spikes in their native state, although they still don’t have many. After they’re picked, they are washed and then sprayed with wax to seal in moisture. Here’s a video of the process.
One might assume that the constant jostling they’re subject to would naturally remove any spines that might be present on their leathery skins to begin with. Another video, which you should start at 0:28 seconds, depicts the spraying process that puts all that shiny and supposedly appetizing wax on your cucumber to begin with. It is weirdly mesmerizing viewing of the genesis of The Nasty Cucumbers.
(Now that I think about it, I have no idea why human beings find unnaturally shiny foods more appetizing – is being shiny-as-hell actually correlated with anything edible in nature? Or are human brains just bad at identifying what is actually food, considering that we’re really into blue food dye? I digress, but, seriously, think about it, it’s super weird).
So why did cucumbers at the grocery store start to get less prickly (in some locations), at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s? I’ve spent a few days combing the Internet and I am sad to report that I still don’t know. I can certainly guess that the grocery stores of 35 to 40 years ago carried different, or less uniformly prickly varieties of cucumber than they carry today. The “why” bit remains unclear, and I can’t find any Internet cucumber historians who could explain – but I know they’re out there, and I hope one of them writes me an indignant letter.
Another theory is “liability” – otherwise known as a cultural rejection of the romantic, dark danger of eating a cucumber that might make you go “ouch” for like a second if you grab it the wrong way out of the crisper. As someone called tripod2000 speculated darkly on a money saving forum, perhaps it’s because “the supermarkets don’t think we can handle prickly cucumbers.”
The student of history might theorize that cucumbers lost their spines at a time in American life when many things were being rendered safer, less dangerous, more boring. De-spiked cucumbers hit the market at approximately the same time as fun-yet-deadly metal play structures were being excised from playground, Lawn Darts were removed from shelves, KinderEggs were banned as a choking hazard, and parents started to really realize that trampolines are just highly-efficient neck snapping devices.
Maybe there really was some Patient Zero for the great cucumber de-spiking sometime in 1990, some kid – let’s call him Kevin – who picked up a grocery store cucumber, pricked himself, screamed as if he’d been shot, and eventually prompted his anguished helicopter-parents to file a lawsuit against Big Cucumber.
I could not find evidence of the existence of some stupid loser wimp like Kevin, so I’ll revert to the more likely explanation, which is that people generally didn’t want to bother with de-spiking cucumbers themselves. Sure, it takes two seconds to wipe off the spines. But that’s still time and energy that people in our ever time-strapped world would rather not exert.
Whatever the reason, the memory of a time when Grocery Store Cucumbers Had the Prickles is eroding, slowly but surely, from our collective memories in the United States. Us millennials like to garden: perhaps prickled cucumbers will come back in vogue as the next heirloom produce craze, signifying good flavor in the same way that they apparently do in China.
Perhaps we will all start getting really into hairy cucumbers instead (get your mind out of the gutter). Perhaps we’ll shed the green n’ long variety of cucumber all together and start consuming exclusively lemon cucumbers. We cannot know the future. We can only know the past: the past where grocery store cucumbers were slightly more dangerous than they are today.