A controversy over state fair pickles dating back 17 years is alive again.
This time, the story of Doris Rubenstein and her rejected pickles is headed to the stage, where it will be replayed as a one-woman show during the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
“A Pickle” recounts the time in the year 2000 when Rubenstein – an author, policymaker and Richfield resident – submitted her homemade dill pickles to the Minnesota State Fair in hopes of that coveted blue ribbon.
But those pickles, she said, were rejected for the way they look; they weren’t suspended in the transparent brine that judges were used to seeing. Instead, Rubenstein’s pickles were fermented in the traditional style, as opposed to being canned with vinegar. The result was a cloudy appearance that got Rubenstein’s jars barred from the fair.
In her view, the judges didn’t know what a real batch of pickles looks like.
“The cloudier the brine, the better,” Rubenstein said in 2000 when she told her story on Minnesota Public Television’s “Almanac.” Part of a run of media attention at the time, that appearance is archived at bit.ly/dorispickles.
“Seventeen years later this thing is still alive,” Rubenstein reflected during an interview with the Sun Current. “Amazing. Taking on a new life.”
To Rubenstein, her rejected pickles are about more than a personal grievance. To her, they symbolize a failure to embrace difference.
The state fair doesn’t accept fermented products for its food contests. And that policy, she asserts, prohibits many foods – like kimchi – from cultures that are relatively unfamiliar to judges.
“They don’t want to reach out to ethnic groups that aren’t northern European, shall we say,” Rubenstein said.
The Sun Current reached out to the creative activities department at the state fair regarding contest rules, but did not hear back.
Despite the potential social implications of the pickle controversy, “A Pickle” keeps the tone lighthearted.
“It’s a comedy because pickles are inherently funny,” Rubenstein said.
From kitchen to stage
Thinking her story had stage potential, Rubenstein approached the Playwrights’ Center, an organization in Minneapolis that cultivates young dramatists. There, in 2014, she met playwright Deborah Yarchun.
“Doris and I met over coffee. And, Doris brought her pickles with her,” Yarchun said, speaking over the phone from New York, where she continues her craft. The playwright agreed the story would work on stage.
“I thought it was very entertaining, and I thought Doris was such a strong, awesome character,” Yarnuch said.
“She had lots of gumption and hutzpah. She’s funny, and she’s sharp. This event in her life obviously meant something to her.”
Set to be portrayed on stage by veteran Twin Cities actress Angela Timberman, Rubenstein maintains the state fair arbiters “don’t want to have to judge things that they’re unfamiliar with.”
She takes exception to the allegation that her pickles’ appearance suggests they are dangerous to eat.
“They did not know enough about the food to know that it wasn’t spoiled,” she claimed.
The fermented pickles are still banned from The Great Minnesota Get Together, but Rubenstein hasn’t pressed organizers on the matter in recent years, saying she doesn’t want to sour the pickle contest for the traditional participants.
“If you’re from a small town and this is your moment of glory, I don’t want to ruin it for them,” she explained.
Rubenstein has said her peace.
“I’ve made my point that you can’t judge pickles and people by the way they look.”
Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.