Who The Folk?! Doris Rubenstein

Doris Rubenstein was so proud of her pickles that she entered them in the 2000 Minnesota State Fair, only to have them rejected due to how they looked. Rubenstein’s story was turned into a play that sold out all four shows earlier this month at the Fringe Festival, but still talks passionately about her pickles, the lack of diversity in judging at the Fair, and the concession to not continue the fight, in this week’s Who The Folk?!

Were you surprised when someone wanted to tell a story about you and this chapter?

Actually, I had sought out a playwright to tell the story. I was pleased and thrilled, and this why I know there is a G-d, that Deborah Yarchun stepped up to be the playwright. She stepped forward at the Playwright Center. She was a fellow there at the time. The stars were aligned that she was at the Playwright Center at the time I was looking for a playwright.

Were you pleased with how it came out?

Oh my G-d, yes. Frankly, the way she organized the material and emphasized certain things made me realize things in myself that I hadn’t before.

How so?

For me, the essence of the story is that you can’t judge pickles or people by the way they look. For Deborah, it was that you’ve got to have chutzpah. People see us better than we see ourselves.

When did the “pickle incident” take place?

The news broke in August 2000 during the State Fair.

Were you surprised to have your pickles rejected in this way?

Absolutely! They’re great pickles. I’ve been making them, and the person who gave me the recipe and been making them, and the person who gave her the recipe has been making them. Jews have been eating these kinds of pickles for time-immemorial, and nobodies died yet from what we know of.

What is it about the pickle recipe that made it so controversial?

When you ferment stuff, if it’s in a liquid, usually the liquid turns somewhat cloudy because of the lactic acid produced by the yeast. I didn’t know this when this started; I learned a lot about fermentation and food safety and all kinds of stuff. If you think about it, beer is fermented. And it’s generally filtered before it goes into glass; if not it would be cloudy with all the dead yeast in it. If those women who had been judging beer that hadn’t been filtered, they would probably reject it too because they aren’t familiar with it.

What’s the background of that style?

I have no idea. Ever since this happened in 2000 and then again now, I’ve had a rash of telephone calls and emails. One woman I was talking with said it sounds like Polish pickles. The Jews lived in Poland a long time and I don’t know if the Poles gave it to the Jews or the Jews gave it to the Poles. But, people have been fermenting all kinds of foods because it’s a way of preserving foods without refrigeration. This is going back since shortly after the dawn of agriculture because salt was the first preservative. It’s why salt was so precious in ancient times because they didn’t have any other way to preserve foods. People still salt foods: Salt cod is eaten all over the world. It’s a way of salting vegetables to make sure they stay preserved. There’s nothing new to it.

But apparently to the judges at the Minnesota State Fair, there was.

They are unfamiliar with it. Don’t’ have diversity in judging. In all the hubbub this month, I got a call from a former colleague at the University of Minnesota where I worked for many years. She’s in the home-ec department and she is a judge at the State Fair. She judges in the baking department and she’s livid because the judges will not add new categories. And all of the judges are sort of like her: Swedes and Norwegians. That’s one of the points I’m trying to make out of this: The State Fair bills itself as “The Great Minnesota Get Together, but when it comes to the creative activities, if not northern European, there’s no room for you.

Have you given up trying to enter the Fair?

Yes. The reason is they are absolutely convinced my food is unsafe. The State Department of Health has said that, actually, none of the food entered in the State Fair is safe to eat, because none of it is prepared in an approved kitchen. Who knows what kind of bacteria Typhoid Mary has on her hands when they are cooking or preparing food to enter for tasting at the State Fair? Someone could have botulism or listeria or who knows what on their hands while doing this cooking. In the Wisconsin State Fair, none of the food is tasted. It’s judged by looks and recipe. It came down to the fact with the Minnesota State Fair, if they allowed me to enter my pickles, these women wouldn’t try to taste it. Even though the health board said the jar is sealed. It’s not just mine. It was lots of people’s whose pickles wouldn’t be tasted. One had been entering it for 35 years and having it rejected, but never asking why. It’s all or nothing: Either all foods get tasted or no foods get tasted, and if they were going to allow it in, it meant no foods got tasted. I said ‘I can’t do this to Mary Johnson in Sartell.’ This is a big moment in her life to have her food tasted and judged and get that ribbon. I can’t do it to these people. But I made my point. I’ll withdraw and let everything get tasted; I will not let us turn into Wisconsin.

G-d forbid we turn into Wisconsin.

G-d forbid. In a lot of ways.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Certainly not Yom Kippur. Passover. It’s a happy holiday and there’s good food at the seder. Not so much after the seder for those of us who are observant.

Favorite Jewish Food?

My grandmother’s strudel. I haven’t been able to reproduce. But also, pickles. What else?

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