Hysterical Cravings

How “pickles and ice cream” became the iconic “crazy” snack for pregnant women.

A pregnant woman eating pickles and ice cream.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Nosh, a special pop-up blog about snacks. Read more here.

Because pregnancy is a time for clichés, I thought I might want the oft-joked-about combo “pickles and ice cream” when I was expecting a baby. But pregnancy “cravings,” at least as I experienced them, were not cute. Throughout the first trimester, and half of the second, I was possessed by nausea, so I lived on fruit and cereal products. On a good day, I ate like a stereotypical toddler: Annie’s mac ’n’ cheese, Goldfish crackers, juice. Further along, no longer nauseated but unremittingly hungry, it almost didn’t matter what I ate, so long as I was eating. I coasted through the last trimester carrying a snack tray in one hand and a smoothie cup in the other. I’d keep a fig bar by the bed so that if I woke up in the night, I wouldn’t have to get up to feed the beast.
My “cravings” weren’t whimsical: They dominated my life.

I wasn’t alone in wanting such a broad array of random foods while pregnant. In a typical thread on the pregnancy forum WhatToExpect, women respectively reported craving green olives, French fries, chicken, sour gummy worms, Mexican food, watermelon, and “water and salad” while they were pregnant. (That last lady must be pretty proud of herself.) In a 2014 review of the existing literature on the origins of pregnancy cravings, psychologists Natalia C. Orloff and Julia M. Hormes did a much more scientific survey of online postings than mine. They found that women reported cravings for “sweets, calorically dense savory carbohydrates like pizza or chips, animal proteins, and fruits,” with the first trimester typically being the time to want savory foods; the second trimester, sweet; and the third trimester, salty. Considering this diversity of experience, I wondered how American culture came up with “pickles and ice cream” as the most iconic pregnant snack.

Interestingly, the existence of pregnancy cravings doesn’t have a concrete scientific explanation. Orloff and Hormes argue that theories of pregnancy cravings that rely on hormonal changes, or the idea that the craved foods meet nutritional deficits, fall short of explaining why women want particular foods when pregnant. (Pica, an eating disorder that prompts pregnant people to eat non-nutritive substances like plaster or dirt, is an exception because it may indicate nutritional deficiencies and should be treated.) The two psychologists wrote that researchers need to consider culture in looking at what women crave while pregnant—the complex influence of ideas about pregnancy, ideas about food, and ideas about womanhood.

Long before “pickles and ice cream,” pregnancy cravings were culturally significant. In the 16th through the early 18th centuries, philosopher Rebecca Kukla writes in Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Women’s Bodies, people believed that “an expectant mother’s cravings, desires, and experiences … were capable of directly inscribing themselves upon the body of the fetus.” This was the famous “theory of the maternal imagination.” Non-food experiences could also mark a baby: If you were frightened by a bear, that could make your child hairy, for example. Some people claimed, Kukla writes, that “cravings for strawberries and other fruits caused birthmarks resembling those fruits; cravings for shellfish caused particularly grotesque facial deformities.” As Kukla points out, a woman didn’t even need to indulge her cravings for her child to show them. Either way, your child would carry the mark of your deepest strawberry longings.

While post-Enlightenment physicians pooh-poohed the theory of maternal imagination, 19th-century pregnancy advice-givers spoke quite sternly about the dangers of maternal cravings. In the middle of the 19th century, Joel Shew called pregnancy cravings abnormal, claiming that the women who had them tended to be “those who suffer from indigestion, those who have constipation, and especially those who are hysterical.” “Many ignorant, nervous women seem to suppose that it is really a necessary part of their being to have these longings in pregnancy,” Shew wrote. “We need hardly say that these longings should never be gratified. No possible good can come from it; only harm, the same as at other times.”

John Eberle, in his 1833 A treatise on the diseases and physical education of children, went Shew one better, writing that following pregnancy cravings could cause “abortion” (miscarriage). “A young married woman” Eberle treated, who was four months pregnant, “was seized with excruciating and obstinate dyspeptic colic, soon after she had eaten freely of some very indigestible food.” This poor woman, who probably had some other problem completely invisible to Eberle, indulged again, about 10 days after, and Eberle writes: “The consequence was, another violent attack of colic, followed immediately by inflammation of the bowels, which in the course of the second day terminated in abortion, and on the following day in the death of the patient.”

By the early 20th century, doctors gave somewhat more latitude to wanting watermelon in the first trimester. In 1920’s The Prospective Mother, Josiah Morris Slemons first made sure to address the outdated theory of maternal imagination, which persisted in folklore, and had transmuted in some quarters to a belief that a maternal craving gone ungratified would result in evil done to the child. “There is a well-known tradition that women who are pregnant are subject to longings for one article of diet or another, and that unless the desire be promptly gratified the child will be ‘marked’ … This evidently is nonsense,” Slemons counseled. “A prospective mother, like everyone else, does frequently desire one article of food more than another. So long as the object of her wish is not obviously harmful, it should be granted; but if it is not granted no harm will come to the child.”

Slemons added that popular culture had affected people’s perceptions of what pregnant women did and did not want. “Remarkable instances in which disgusting substances have been craved and eaten are often talked about and have even found their way into popular novels,” Slemons wrote. “The unfortunate victims of these unnatural cravings are not of sound mind.”

Slemons doesn’t mention “pickles and ice cream.” So when did this become the pregnancy cliché it is today? Full-text search makes it easier to see where the twin snacks show up together. In the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress’ database of newspapers, Chronicling America, school yearbooks and local papers dating to the early 20th century are full of mentions of “pickles and ice cream,” if in non-pregnancy-related contexts. Churches, schools, and fraternal organizations putting on picnics and socials included both items—delicacies that people were able to make at home, before a time of widespread industrial food production and distribution—on their menus. So the Masons of Breckenridge, Kentucky, had a luncheon in July 1920: “Beef, roast potatoes, pickles and ice cream were served.”

“Pickles and ice cream” were, in the early twentieth century through the midcentury period, also perceived as a comically bad food combination that might poison you, or give you nightmares. A 1919 Mutt and Jeff cartoon ends with the two in bed, with Mutt telling Jeff: “Cut out that tossing about in your sleep! I told you not to eat those pickles and that ice cream before you went to bed!” In 1939, a reviewer called a play “As though Gertrude Stein dreamed a dream after a late supper of pickles and ice cream.” In a dietary advice book of 1961, Sarah Regal Riedman wrote, addressing a common conception: “Are some combinations of foods ‘poison’ and others ‘just right?’ Are orange juice and milk, or pickles and ice cream, combinations that are hard to digest?”

The increase in use of the shorthand of “pickles and ice cream” for “pregnancy cravings” seems to be an artifact of the midcentury baby boom. In an episode of the famous 1952–3 season of I Love Lucy, where both actress and character were pregnant, Lucy sends Ricky out for a papaya milkshake and a dill pickle. When he comes back into their apartment, looking beleaguered, she asks “What took you so long?” He replies, “What took me so long? I had to go all over town!” She dips a dill pickle in the milkshake and eats it, much to the audience’s prolonged delight. In another episode, Lucy demands Ricky go on another errand at 4 a.m. for pistachio ice cream and hot fudge, which she eats with sardines on top. His face is a study in chagrin.

Since then, pickles and ice cream have been consistently rehearsed as a pregnancy cliché, through countless uses in popular culture and everyday conversation. The TV Tropes page for Wacky Cravings is full of examples; a search of the words in Google Books turns up many instances of the combination in romance novels that use the pairing to indicate the onset of pregnancy, as well as in the titles of “humorous” pregnancy cookbooks.

Even if nobody anybody actually knows craved pickles with ice cream while pregnant, the joke still works. This may be because the second part of the joke always involves the hapless husband, who, like Ricky, has to go out at all hours to satisfy his wife’s desires. Like John Stamos’ Jesse in an episode of the original Full House where Becky experiences cravings, he will be expected to drive to Mexico for seedless watermelon, if that’s what she wants.

Wanting something strange to eat, and forcing your husband to get it for you, is a little cultural script, which we now invoke when we say: “Pickles and ice cream.” I find it objectionable to think that women should have to claim pregnancy cravings—an “irrational” urge of the body, murky in its scientific origins, yet universally recognized in our culture—in order to ask their husbands to do something for them, even as they are navigating what can be an extremely confusing and trying stretch of biological changes.

None of this happened to me. I didn’t want pickles and ice cream, or any other strangely mismatched foods, and I didn’t “make” my husband get me anything. The few times he did bring me ice cream, he thought of it himself. Mostly, I fed my own cravings—ordering those fig bars from Amazon in bulk, cooking boeuf bourguignon at 38 weeks. In the distance between real women’s experiences and our favorite cliché, you see how we make pregnancy seem familiar and universal—perhaps because it’s so terrifyingly specific when it happens to you.

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