Pickles for Old Fans, New Converts

By Jeffrey Yoskowitz
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Photo by Sophie Barbasch


Pickle festivals rarely take themselves too seriously--they aim to celebrate the joy and the absurdity that go along with the age-old craft of food preservation. The Ninth Annual New York City International Pickle Day, held this past Sunday on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was far more ambitious than most other pickle festivals.

Planned by the New York Food museum and co-sponsored by the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, the pickle festival had three important objectives: to recognize the Lower East Side's pickle heritage, to promote the "rebirth" of the Lower East Side, and, of course, to showcase local producers in what is becoming a more and more crowded artisanal foods marketplace each year.

The New York Food Museum addressed the pickle's Lower East Side legacy with timelines and picture displays, as well as with "Pickles: A Time-Space Odyssey," a chart of pickle-themed historical events that stretched as far back as 2400 B.C., when anthropologists believe ancient Mesopotamians first used pickling as a form of food preservation. The Odyssey also covered how Christopher Columbus brought pickles to the New World and how Guss' began a few blocks away from the Pickle Day grounds back in 1910.

"There's some sort of deep connection going on with pickles now," said Katy Tackett, known in the blogosphere as Pickle Freak.

Despite its lofty goals, Pickle Day was rife with the usual pickle fanfare. Horman's Best Pickles were back for another year serving pickles on a stick, while children had half sours painted on their faces and roaming costumed kosher dills entertained the lines of attendees. The usual chocolate-covered pickles were present, and Peanut Butter & Co. served peanut butter and pickle sandwiches to eager and hungry pickle enthusiasts. The homemade pickle ice cream of last year, however, was conspicuously absent. So, too, was the musical quartet that blows pickle brine bubbles.

Nevertheless, with its bike valet sponsored by Transportation Alternatives, a plethora of free samples, plus hip and ironic t-shirts and buttons, Pickle Day was, if anything, a celebration of the youthfulness and recent novelty of home preservation in a street fair well suited to the Millenial Generation.

"There's some sort of deep connection going on with pickles now," said Katy Tackett, known in the blogosphere as Pickle Freak. "It's a result of the dovetailing of the economic recession and the make-it-yourself movement coming out of Brooklyn," added Jen Catto, another pickle blogger known as Pickle Girl. Or as Liz Alpern, pickle lover and Jewish food enthusiast, put it, "there's an upsurge of food production from people my own age and I f--ing love it."

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Photo by Sophie Barbasch

Like any industry event, the familiar faces--such as Rick from Rick's Picks and the McClure's Pickles guys--were there showcasing their innovative products, including Rick's Smokra (smoked paprika okra pickles) and McClure's spicy pickles. Adamah, the non-profit Jewish farm from Falls Village, Connecticut, whose slogan--"Young Jewish Farmers Changing the World One Pickle at a Time"--produced its fair share of smirks, was back again with their Old World-inspired lacto-fermented full sours and half-sours, reminding festival goers that the Jewish pickle tradition is alive and kicking.

There were four new pickle companies present out of about sixteen according to Nancy Ralph, the festival's organizer and the Director of the New York Food Museum. Two new kimchi vendors attended this year, as well. Mother In Law's Kimchi sampled an anchovy kimchi variety that was a startling but welcome surprise to my tastebuds.

In some ways this pickle day symbolized the passing of the torch from the old time picklers to the new. While Russ and Daughters, a New York Institution since 1914, was present for their fourth Pickle Day appearance, showcasing their pickled tomato and lox sandwiches and their legendary pickled herring, other venerable Lower East Side pickle companies, specifically Guss' and The Pickle Guys, chose not to participate this year. "They moved it [the festival] off my block. That's why I don't go there no more," said Guss' owner, Patricia Fairhurst. Fairhurst opened her doors a few blocks away and still commanded long lines on what she said was her busiest day of the year. The Pickle Guys, on the other hand, were advised by their Rabbincal Supervisors not to attend the event because it coincided with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

With the recent news of Guss' departure to Borough Park, this pickle day represented the new vanguard of picklers who could become the next pickle icon of New York. Rick's Picks opened up its headquarters in the Lower East Side, positioning itself for such acclaim. Rick apparently still drops by Guss' from time to time and pays homage to the half sours.

Others are also hoping to fill the vacuum. "I want to take over that Lower East Side pickle," said Shamus Jones of the newly founded Brooklyn Brine Co. A trained chef, Jones started Brooklyn Brine a mere six hours after being laid off this past summer. "There's nothing new about the [pickling] process," he said of the recent surge in new pickle ventures. "Now it's just how you can differentiate yourself." Jones, whose heirloom pickles and other creative flavors earned him his long lines during his very first year, has high hopes for his live-cultured pickles fermented in old whisky barrels that he has branded his whiskey sours.

"I really hope this isn't a fad," Pickle Girl said of pickle day's growth and the new, exciting companies and products being rolled out from year to year. "I hope it's just how we go forward."

Did Pickle Day achieve its ambitious goals? One young elementary school student, Lily Laredo, the middle child of the Laredo family that drove down from Somers, NY, said she went from "hating pickles to being on the fence," a change that her parents swore was momentous. Lily's older sister, Dalia, liked the peanut-butter-and-pickle combination so much that she's been inspired. "From now on," she said, "I'll add pickles to all my sandwiches." After an event like pickle day, it's fair to assume that she's not alone, and that there won't be a shortage of great pickles for those sandwiches any time soon, especially not in New York.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/10/pickles-for-old-fans-new-converts/27876/