You can search online for the ‘Kirby Cucumber’ 'til the cows come home...while the phrase will show up on just about every page of the search results, it will lead you down the blind alleys of meaningless generalities, vague descriptions, and mislabeled images. If you're wondering what's so special about the Kirby Cucumber, or any cucumber for that matter, you might as well just skip this post. You see, being of Eastern European descent, I was weaned on pickles. From late summer to early fall when I was growing up my mother would can whole dill pickles and bread and butter slices, pint, quarts and even gallons, shelf after shelf of them lined our semi-finished basement. I would the first to the front door two evenings a week when I heard the local farmer blow his horn, and my mother would haggle with him for bushel after bushel of the small bumpy skinned pickling cucumbers. I really loved pickles, but saltshaker in hand, I loved eating these crisp little cucumbers with tiny seeds even more, right out of the basket - when my mother wasn’t looking of course.
Three decades later I found myself arriving at the Farmers’ Market in Seattle’s University District up to 45 minutes before the opening bell to make sure I wasn’t edged out by the sharp-elbowed Eastern European women for these little cucumbers. After a few seasons of this I found a farmer who grew several dozen different varieties of heirloom cucumber from Asia and the Middle East. While they were all generally much bigger than the pickling cucumbers, most of the varieties still had loads of flavor, thin skins, and very high flesh to seed ratios. Two bad season in a row about six years back, and the farmer gave up on serious heirloom cucumber cultivation, so it was back to scrounging for pickling cucumbers. Most of the pickling cucumbers grown these days are the National Pickling Cucumber variety or one of its cousins, like the Boston Pickling Cucumber. They come in all sizes and are know for their gradiation in color from dark green to pale light green with four or more ridges of well defined bumps running down their length. The skins are thinner than slicing cucumbers but still relatively thick when young, and if the skin is dark green it will have the telltale cucumber bitterness. Until about four years ago, I though these were the be all and end all of pickling cucumbers.
I was introduced to Kirby Cucumbers by the ladies at Anselmo’s Organic Farm, and their was no going back - although last year their crop failed, and I had to do without. Instead of ridges of pronounced bumps, the Kirbys are covered with very tiny bumps, almost like a skin rash. The skin is usually color of lime rind, with very thin stripes the color of lime pulp spreading out like a starburst from the flowering end. The skins are much thinner than the National Pickling Cucumber with little to no bitterness. Its flesh is a bit denser, has more color, more flavor, and it has smaller and fewer seeds in the central cluster, and a very high flesh to seed ratio. Fresh, they make for amazing eating, but they are also great for quick, overnight pickles. While Anselmo’s Organic Farm has promised a crop this year, they won’t begin to arrive until early August, and so I was surprised this Saturday when I found a small basket full at the Tonnemaker's Farm booth. Munching on a few on the way home, they were everything I remembered. As for the history of the Kirby Cucumber, it seems that it is an older variety. While it was once very popular, it was pushed out of large-scale cultivation by the National Pickling Cucumber. The name 'Kirby' came to be used in a more generic sense for any small pickling cucumber, and so most images that you find online labeled ‘Kirby’ will actually be the National Pickling Cucumber or one of its cousins. Actually, I think I like it that way…all the more for me to eat.