Mrs Elswood is a beloved British gherkin brand. (That might be pickle to you, but to us, it’s gherkin, always.) In a land where nearly all Jew food has to be sought out, there are 5.5 million Mrs Elswood jars sold nationally every year, and a jar of Mrs Elswood can be found in a corner shop in even the smallest of UK towns. With a Jewish population of about 280,000, it seems safe to assume that many people in the UK who have never met a Jew have met Mrs. Elswood.
Mrs Elswood jars have always featured a picture of “Mrs. Elswood.” Revived in the 1980s by three former employees of Marela Pickles — the original brand, which operated out of London’s East End from 1947 through the 1970s — the new owners decided customers needed to associate the product with a person. This means Mrs. Elswood is, much to the continual surprise and kick-to-the-kishkes of British Jews, not a real person, but an invention. Her name is a mash-up of two Jewish areas in London: Elstree and St John’s Wood.
The first Mrs. Elswood was a model from an agency — a dark-haired woman in her early 20s who, frankly, looked like she crushed a lot of hearts in her Israel tour days. There isn’t not a touch of soft porn about the photo. This Mrs. Elswood was brief; the model sadly died young, and her family asked the owners to change the picture, as it was upsetting to see her smiling out from the supermarket shelves.
Thus the new Mrs. Elswood was born, an illustrated face that the vast majority of UK Jews recognize and love deeply. She has been variously described as looking like a Jewish Kate Bush, a more chilled Ruby Wax, or a lot like Helen Rollason (this is an incredibly niche reference to a British 1980s children’s news presenter). What she does look like is Yiddische. She looks like the powerhouse rabbi’s wife whose inexplicably great teeth were a subject of community fascination, like your mate’s mum from Hebrew school with an awkward-to-manage Jew-mop, like your Auntie Sylvie who did a lot for the local WIZO. She’s facing straight on, but you just know that in profile that nose ain’t messing. She’s wearing a green blouse and looking out from above a swooping red banner of her name, over a sober dark green label announcing the genre of cucumber inside: “Sweet Cucumber Sandwich Slices: Pickled,” “Cucumber Spears with Dill” or the straight to it “Haimisha Cucumber,” all under a shiny silver lid, promising quality and authenticity.
But a couple of weeks ago, The Jewish Chronicle broke the big news. Mrs. Elswood was getting a rebrand. And they had evidence: Pictures of a new Mrs Elswood jar — with a new Mrs. Elswood.
Where. To. Start.
The new Mrs. Elswood is younger. The new Mrs. Elswood is smoother. The new Mrs. Elswood is back-lit. The new Mrs. Elswood is a redhead who looks like she’s had a blow-dry and a feather cut to give her straight-arsed hair some body. The slight wonk of Mrs. Elswood’s smile is gone, replaced with total symmetry. Her nose is broader but flatter. The new Mrs. Elswood is wearing a red checked blouse. The old Mrs. Elswood was probably called Miriam or Judith or Esti. The new Mrs. Elswood is definitely called Christine. How can I make this any clearer? The new Mrs. Elswood is… not Jewish. Of course, Jews can look like all sorts of things, but the deliberate removal of such an iconic Jewish image is startling. Add a new bright red jar lid to all of this and to the whole thing has gone hella “Little House on the Prairie.” To quote my friend Emma Jude Harris: “She looks like a pioneer woman who pickles cucumber spears alongside her plum and peach canning before the long cold winter.”
Desperate to understand what happened, I spoke to Mat Moyes, head of the Mrs Elswood brand for Empire Bespoke Foods. “Over the years, and driven by consumer research, there were lots of comments suggesting that Mrs. Elswood was in need of a refresh,” he told me. He also said the rebranding process had included conversations with a Jewish food historian, as well as testing the new branding “with shoppers up and down the country.” In every study, “the new outperformed the old on all measures.” The time for a new direction, it seemed, was now.
This new assimilation of Mrs. Elswood would matter less in a country where Jewish women (or Jewishness at all, to be honest) were culturally represented with any regularity. But in Britain, we are really searching for scraps. So for now, when I’m in Leicester or Godalming or Christchurch feeling the ancestral need for brine and I round the corner-shop aisle, the gherkins will be glistening from behind the familiar face of Mrs. Elswood. I will know in that moment I am not the only Jew in town. Soon, however, I will instead be greeted by Christine, who is more kumbaya than Kol Nidre. And I will feel alone. I will buy them anyway, of course, soak off the label, imagine the old Mrs. Elswood as I eat them, and thank Hashem they haven’t changed the recipe.