What is a fried dill pickle chip supposed to taste like? If you have been to The Penguin Drive-In, a circa-1950s roadhouse in the Plaza-Midwood district in Charlotte, N.C., you know there are four steps that elevate this crispy, Southern-style snack food with zero nutritional value to total greatness: The slices of brined cucumber must be immersed in a buttermilk bath (some say the pickle chips must receive a good soaking while others insist they should take only the briefest of dips in a pool of clabbered milk batter); the chips must not hit the deep-fat fryer until the second the server can be heard screeching out your ticket item to the hulking fry cook; the crust must be light, crunchy and almost tempura-like; and, lastly, your order must come with a side of Ranch dressing.
But what if you don't have the time to drive 2,400 plus miles to the Tar Heel State? And what if you get it into your head that Jessica Koslow's intense, clear-flavored, lacto-fermented Sqirl pickles might be the perfect foundation for this sort of side dish? And that, if Short Order at the Farmers Market is one of Koslow's chief outlets, maybe chef Christian Page might be susceptible to some badgering? And what if Page is so gentlemanly and kind that he doesn't blow a gasket when you keep returning to Short Order to make him tweak the dish until it is exactly right (including the time you subjected him to having a visiting Ruth Reichl sample his housemade Ranch dressing and declare it “too salty”)?
This is what happens: You end up with something that you never thought possible — a batch of crunchy, golden-brown, fried pickle chips that are bedazzled with tiny flecks of cornmeal and are somehow better than the Penguin's, which, after all, use a flour-based batter and rely on more commercially made ingredients, such as pickle slices that come in huge industrial vats as well as viscous bottled Ranch dressing that pales next to Page's delicate, newly Reichl-ized combination of buttermilk, crème fraiche, mayo, dill, red wine vinegar, parsley, chives and very little salt.
Though fried dill pickle chips are nowhere to be found on the printed Short Order menu, they're available on request. Just like the regulars at the Penguin, we anointed the dipping sauce with enough drops of Tabasco to give it a fiery, vinegary flair.