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Pickles are to New Yorkers as kimchi is to Koreans. Sweet or sour, soft or crunchy, mild or garlicky, the city and the pickle are as entwined as pastrami and rye. The unsung hero of the Lower East Side, as quintessential as the New York slice, the Kosher dill was once a headliner of the immigrant city’s diet, New York’s first street food sold from a pushcart.
So what happened? From its peak in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, the pickle plummeted to what many would assume to be its natural state—the oft-neglected, watery and flaccid spear most commonly discarded with sandwich ends and unused mustard packets. Fallen from grace, with only a few of the formerly hundreds of pickle purveyors remaining in its old stomping grounds (Guss’ on Orchard and The Pickle Guys on Essex), the pickle seemed fated to go the way of jellied pimento salad. Michael Pollan said in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “People began processing food to keep nature from taking it back: What is spoilage, after all, if not nature, operating through her proxy microorganisms, repossessing our hard-won lunch?” After thousands of years of learning to pickle cabbage, olives, lemons, okra, cucumbers, even pretty in pink eggs (like the ones pictured above), saving lunch from the destructive whims of Mother Nature, was our future nothing but Vlasic?
New local favorites Rick’s Picks, McClure’s and Wheelhouse Pickles all started up within the last six years, and all keep it fresh and handmade. Not only are they reinvigorating New York’s pickle culture, but they’re reinventing it with combinations like wasabi green beans and Asian-spiced pears. Pickles are also fixtures at several Greenmarkets throughout the city, at which I occasionally grab a jar of dills as a gift for a pregnant friend (surprise surprise, it ain’t just a myth!), but for a long time ignored, just like I ignore the sub-par baked goods sadly on display in most farmers’ markets. Having grown up mainly on sweet cocktail gherkins and ridged slices, I enjoyed an occasional spear with fish and chips but had never fully explored the complexity of the pickle. It wasn’t until a holiday party a few years back that I truly caught the pickling bug. After midnight that December, gorged on Christmas cookies and bourbon, my friend pulled a jar of homemade pickled ramps out of her refrigerator and said “Try this–from our garden!” And just like that, I was hooked.
Green tomatoes with curry, turnips with gin (!), simple dills with garlic… the city has turned into a veritable smorgasbord of pickle possibilities. In fact, this may be the best time ever to be pregnant in New York City. Whole Foods on the Bowery even sponsored a pickle and cheese tasting recently, featuring Bob McClure, and after reading up on my pairings, I snagged a jar of Rick’s Pick’s Phat Beets at the Brooklyn Flea last weekend and plated it up with arugula and Bûcheron. I would say it was a delicious salad, except that I quickly picked out and ate up my allotment of ginger and allspice-infused roots before I even sampled the rest. Next time, a beet Napolean.
This past summer I jarred petite kirbies from the Greenmarket for friends, and watched them disappear on veggie burgers at a late summer cookout in Clinton Hill. Fresh and extra crunchy, refrigerator pickles have a comforting vinegary sweetness that I remember from childhood summers spent in Alleghany State Park, where a favorite neighboring restaurant served plates of pickled vegetables with every meal, followed by hot corn fritters with syrup. Refrigerator pickles, though, are a different breed than the kind of sour pickle perfected by Guss’ over the last 90 years, which are prepared entirely without vinegar and fermented solely with the help of naturally occurring, lactic-acid producing bacteria in a salt brine. Something best left to the experts, I think!
All of this isn’t to say that pickle mania has been confined to New York—the South has its own pickle tradition as well, and is deservedly famous for it. In fact, I’ll freely admit that the tastiest bread and butters I’ve ever had were at Jestine’s Kitchen, a true Low Country café in Charleston, South Carolina, where the pickles are sweet, the okra is fried, and the po’ boys are deliciously overstuffed. But southern pickles, including the newfangled Kool-Aid variety, are a whole ‘nother story.
After a particularly harsh happy hour on the Lower East Side last weekend, Erin and I trudged through the slush to Katz’s for pastrami. As I alternated bites of meat with a half-sour, washing it all down with a Cel-Ray, I wondered what it is that makes pickles so satisfying. I crave them most with fats and oils, when eating hamburgers and mayonnaise, but they’re so much more than just palate cleansers. Kimchi brightens a bowl of plain rice, chutney adds dimension to an Indian meal, the dill pickle brine served with the oysters at The Breslin is my new favorite shellfish accoutrement, and pickled vegetables, like those served at Mari Vanna in the Flatiron district, are a lip-smacking staple of Mediterranean, Eastern European and Russian cuisine. Everyone has their pickled favorite, and nearly anything can be pickled, from eggplant to watermelon rinds, crabapples to pears. In the days before Fritos snack packs and crispy potato product, barrel pickles were both a portable and satisfyingly salty snack.
I crunched happily on my dill and imagined Katz’s as it was back in ’09—that is, 1909—when the pickles were crisp, the pastrami was fatty and the salami hanging from the ceiling was actually for sale. I’m happy to know that places like Katz’s and Guss’ are still around, but equally happy for the new guys and gals who are expanding the definition of what New Yorkers think of when they think of a pickle. By mixing it up and adding new flavors to our favorite condiment, the nouveau picklers are building a modern history of pickles in the city. One involving way more spice.