Is this Iowa's favorite appetizer?
See a step by step instructional recipe video on how to make pickle warps. Press Citizen
Editor's note: This story originally published in 2016.
My obsession with “Holiday Pickle Wraps” — also known as “Iowa Sushi” or “Lutheran Sushi” — began with a Facebook post.
Just before Thanksgiving, fellow reporter John Naughton posted a picture of a Hy-Vee display replete with cream cheese, pickles, dried beef and a sign noting that it was time for “Holiday Pickle Wraps.” Above the photo he wrote, “Sure sign you’re in Iowa.”
To me, the sign and its gathered foodstuffs might as well have been in a foreign language. Pickle wraps? Naughton’s post should have read: "A sure sign you’re not from Iowa."
After living in the Hawkeye State for two years, I like to think I have at least a passing grasp on what is Iowan, but here I was simply gobsmacked by pickle wraps. What exactly are pickle wraps? Are these truly Iowan or just a quick appetizer Iowans are co-opting? And, most importantly, aren’t they incredibly salty?
“No, they’re not overly salty,” I was assured by Darcy Maulsby, lifelong Iowan and author of “A Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites & More.”
"Pickle wraps are very, very popular in Iowa," Maulsby added. "So many friends say pickle wraps are the first thing on the appetizer tray to go at their parties."
Traditionally, a pickle wrap begins with a pickle (obviously), which is then slathered in cream cheese, wrapped in ham and cut into bite-sized pieces. However, there are variations on the general pickle wrap theme, Maulsby said. Some people sheathe the ham with a tortilla and others don’t use ham at all, instead opting for a dried beef encasement. Others make pickle wrap dip, where all the ingredients of a pickle wrap are blended together and served with crackers.
“This is definitely a Midwestern thing,” Maulsby said. “You go to Arizona, Oklahoma, California, Michigan, they’ve never heard of a pickle wrap. Some Wisconsin and Minnesota people do know about pickle wraps, but I think Iowans should embrace this as our own, for sure.”
The exact genesis of the pickle wrap — or pickle roll-up as it is also called — is unknown, but Maulsby said the appetizer most likely originated as a modification of an old-world German recipe.
“I think of this as being in the same category as the fried breaded pork tenderloin, as far as its German-ness goes,” she said. “Anytime you have a German community or a place with a strong German heritage, you got pickles and red meat and that is two-thirds of a pickle wrap right there.”
As with its origins, the enduring legacy of the pickle wrap is up for grabs as well. So what is it that keeps Iowans coming back to the simplest of hors d'oeuvres?
“It’s the pickle wrap’s flavor sensation, and it’s a texture thing, too,” Maulsby said. “It does everything a good food should do: It’s interesting to the palate. The tang of the pickle plays nicely off of the smooth cream cheese and salty meat. The crunch of the pickle is in contrast to the creaminess of the cream cheese. As a food, it does so many things well.”
The best thing about the pickle wrap is that it is so easy to make that even I, a cooking novice, feel confident in my abilities to master the roll-up. Simply slather, wrap and cut. But Maulsby urges chefs not to rest on their pickle wrap laurels, but to attempt their own variation on the classic roll-up. Take something conventional and make it your own!
“There are a lot of fun things you could do with pickle wraps,” Maulsby said, “and no one is going to get too worked up if you tweak the classic roll-up — at least I don’t think they will.”
Pickle wrap recipes
Here are culinary historian Darcy Maulsby's favorite pickle wrap and pickle wrap dip recipes. To learn more about her work and other classically Iowan foodstuffs, check out her website at Darcymaulsby.com.
Classic Iowa pickle wraps
1 jar dill pickles
Cream cheese, softened
Lay the ham slices flat on a serving plate and pat dry. Spread with cream cheese. Place a pickle spear at one end of each slice and roll the slices into cylinders around the spears. Secure with toothpicks. Chill in refrigerator. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
Tortilla pickle-ham rolls
1 (32 ounce) jar dill pickles
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened and divided (make certain that the cream cheese is very soft for spreading)
1 pinch garlic powder, to taste (optional)
1 pound sliced cooked ham (I like to use honey ham)
6-inch flour tortillas
Mix the softened cream cheese with garlic powder (if using). Spread a thin layer of the cream cheese onto one side of a tortilla. Place 1 slice of ham over the cream cheese. Spread another layer of cream cheese over the ham. Roll a pickle up in the tortilla. Cover the roll with plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours (to make slicing easier). Remove the plastic wrap. Using a serrated knife, slice the roll into about 1-inch pieces or to desired size.
Dried beef pickle dip
1 package (3 ounces) dried beef, finely chopped
1 package (8 ounces) regular or reduced fat cream cheese
1/2 cup reduced fat sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
1/2 to 1 cup coarsely chopped dill pickles (not dill relish)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Soften cream cheese and combine with remaining ingredients. Chill until serving. Serve with crackers or fresh vegetables.
— Dip recipe from the Iowa Beef Industry Council.