Doris Rubenstein of Richfield dreamed, as so many dream in the muggy month of August, of a blue ribbon at the Great Minnesota Get-together. Her product was pickles.
But judges in the State Fair’s 2000 canning competition gave Rubenstein something else: the boot.
Not only were Rubenstein’s traditional kosher dill pickles ribbon-less — they were disqualified. For the second year in a row.
“I went to pick up my jars and I asked a judge why,’ ” Rubenstein recounted. “She just said, ‘Oh, they’re bad. Look at the water. The liquid is all cloudy.’ ”
Rubenstein, 67, grew up in Detroit in the volatile 1960s in integrated schools. She dealt with mean girls in junior high school. She served for two years in the Peace Corps. She wrote a book titled “The Good Corporate Citizen.”
In other words, Rubenstein is no shrinking violet when it comes to challenges.
“That’s the way they’re supposed to be!” she said of the family recipe. “The water is cloudy because true kosher dills are fermented in brine instead of vinegar.”
She pulled out a pickle and asked the judge to taste it. “Oh,” said the judge. “This is delicious.”
Just not for this particular fair, the judge added.
Rubenstein felt this lack of pickle diversity wasn’t fair at all, so she took her story to the media in hopes that someone would hear her plea and add new categories and, maybe, new judges. Within days, other cultural groups across Minnesota were sharing their grievances about being shut out of the judging. Her story was featured in newspapers and radio stations nationwide.
Rubenstein never again entered her pickles, although she has continued making them to this day. And it would take the State Fair more than a few years to embrace greater diversity in its offerings.
The moral of this story, though, is that justice delayed still feels pretty good. While brine did not lead to blue, it led to something bigger: a world premiere play at the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival, which begins Thursday.
“A Pickle” was written by New York playwright Deborah Yarchun. The one-woman play stars Twin Cities veteran actress Angela Timberman and is directed by Really Spicy Opera artistic director Basil Considine.
“It’s 80 percent me,” and 20 percent artistic license, Rubenstein said of the play, which focuses on Rubenstein’s life all the way back to her teen years. “That’s fine. It makes it more universal.”
Rubenstein became an activist in the 1960s and considered a career as a foreign correspondent. She later moved to New York to work for the nonprofit disaster relief organization, CARE. She moved to Minneapolis in 1984, working for 13 years in fundraising at the University of Minnesota, before becoming a philanthropy consultant. She also is a member of the Doris Club of the Upper Midwest, a social club whose 200-plus members are all named Doris.
Her predilection for pickles is due, largely, to her Uncle Harvey Glassman (“May he rest in peace”) — a character of the first order who used his mother-in-law’s recipe for making kosher pickles.
“Every year, he’d give us several jars,” Rubenstein said. Her mother never ate a pickle in her life, which meant more for Doris.
Uncle Harvey didn’t have a recipe; just a little bit of this, a little bit of that, magically mixed together during prime pickling season, which usually runs from mid-July to mid-August.
After he died, Rubenstein suffered “pickle withdrawal.” She bought all kinds of brands but was never satisfied. Half-sours, which are only partly pickled, “are for sissies,” she quickly determined. (She also calls them “Minnesota-meek” or “not-calling-attention-to-themselves pickles.”)
Closer were the whole sours, also called old dills, which are pickled all the way through, “and much stronger in flavor.”
One day at a family gathering, a friend named Aviva Breen brought over her homemade pickles.
“This is it!” Rubenstein declared joyfully. Breen shared her recipe with Rubenstein.
In her kosher kitchen, Rubenstein packs her dills in brine (salt and water), along with garlic and a combination of spices, then allows them to ferment. She adds a cayenne pepper for emphasis.
But Minnesotans, she quickly learned, are likely more accustomed to cucumbers placed in jars filled with vinegar, garlic and a few spices, then pasteurized in boiling water.
Curt Pederson said that is changing.
“We are definitely trying to be more inclusive,” he said.
Pederson is superintendent of Creative Activities, where the canning and baking contests are held. He’s been affiliated with the State Fair for decades, all the way back to the days when “pretty mild” in taste described pretty much everything that was entered.
When asked whether Rubenstein’s pickles got a fair shake, he answered diplomatically. Historically, judges in the canning and baked goods categories have tended to come from food science backgrounds where they are focused on food safety, he said. They don’t know from cloudy water.
Couple that with having to judge about 1,800 jars of pickles in a day and a half, and out go any murky jars that don’t look quite right.
Yet, Pederson, who grew up on Heinz ketchup, does believe Rubenstein would see far more diversity today in his building, reflecting the shifting demographics of our state.
He points proudly to a recently added “Heirloom Recipe Contest,” that is judged both on taste and the story behind the food item. “People bring in a dish or old silverware and set a little scene, supported with photographs,” he said. Among recent stories were those of several Hispanic families.
A play is born
About four years ago, Rubenstein attended a History Theatre play about Ronnie Rabinowitz, a boy from Sheboygan, Wis., whose childhood, thanks to a politically connected father, included correspondences with the likes of Jackie Robinson and then-Sen. John Kennedy.
Rubenstein thought, “Someone can make a play about my pickles!”
She called the Playwrights’ Center and asked associate artistic director Hayley Finn if there might be a playwright interested in her story. Turned out that Yarchun was in the Twin Cities on a Jerome Fellowship and was quite intrigued.
“A few of my plays deal with Jewish culture,” said Yarchun, who started writing plays in the 7th grade.
“Doris was my education into Jewish kosher dill pickles, how important they are to others, how much meaning a pickle can take on.”
The playwright and the pickler had an immediate connection, Rubenstein said, although the pickler pictured a big cast, including a chorus of State Fair judges belting out in unison their rejection of her jars.
But a one-woman show was good, too.
The two women met many times to talk about Rubenstein’s story, all the way back to junior high when Rubenstein devised a clever response to the popular girls’ rejection, a pivotal moment that set her on a trajectory of justice and fairness.
Yarchun recorded much of their conversations to capture Rubenstein’s “emphatic way of speaking. She’s quite a character,” Yarchun said, “full of gumption. She’s a strong female protagonist.”
Yarchun wrote, whittled down, rearranged, revised, made more cuts. She ended up with a play of just under an hour that takes audiences from Rubenstein’s youth, to the competition, to the moment she is disqualified, to the media frenzy that ensued.
“It’s a very funny story, with a darker undercurrent,” Yarchun said. “It’s not an issue play. It’s mostly about a very funny person with a lot of chutzpah.”
Timberman was a perfect fit, the playwright said. A veteran of Twin Cities stages including Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the Jungle Theater, Park Square Theatre and the Guthrie, “she’s a very gifted comedic actress,” Yarchun said of Timberman. “She got the comedic timing spot-on.”
Timberman said she always wanted to do a Fringe show.
“They are kind of badass and fun,” she said. “That appealed to me. And the subject of the play appealed to me. I like the idea of a middle-aged woman having a voice about something and not apologizing for it. More and more, we become invisible, especially on stage.”
Rubenstein, she said, “is a very confident woman with a big personality, which I have. I have a kinship with her. I also love how much integrity she has, how smart and generous she is, how positive she is, and vigilant. She seems to be a person who really loves life.”
The play, Timberman said, shows that “the only way we can change things is to voice our concerns and push back.”
And push back Rubenstein did, Timberman noted.
“We got a play produced because of it.”