People have been pickling food for thousands of years. Archaeologists and anthropologists note the Ancient Mesopotamians pickling food as early as 2400 B.C. and Aristotle praised the healing effects of cured cucumbers as early as 850 B.C. But as common as the cucumber pickle is, it is only one of the dozens of foods people continue to pickle today in countries all over the world.
People in Europe and Asia have been pickling vegetables, fruits, meat and fish for centuries because it provided a safe and easy way to preserve your food during the winter months, if the growing season was short, or if it was simply the culinary norm. The word pickle comes from the Dutch word “pekel” which referred to a solution of spiced brine used for preserving food. Brine is usually vinegar based with various herbs and spices, and can vary according to what and where someone is pickling.
THIS brings us to a visit I paid to the 7th annual Pickle Festival in the Lower East Side this last Sunday. The Lower East Side has a rich pickling history that dates to the impoverished immigrant cultures that lived in the area for centuries before gentrification. Push carts selling pickles and barrels at storefronts were a common site for people back then, and pickled foods were a cheap and easy way to eat.
Today the heritage of pickled foods is carried on in this festival, held in honor of everything from the ubiquitous cucumber pickle, to pickled green beans, fish or kimchee.
The last institution of pickle heritage that still thrives on the Lower East Side is Guss’s Pickles on Orchard Street. You can stop there on your way to the Lower East Side tenement museum, which is a six story tenement preserved by the National Park Service. The building housed some 7000 people between 1863 and 1935, and celebrates the area’s immigrant history and its cultural significance to the history of America. Anyhow, Guss’s remains and the pickles are quite good.
There were actually ALOT of people who came to try the various pickled foods, so we were careful to wait in line only for what seemed worth trying. This woman was so hungry from waiting in line, she decided to eat a large paper mache pickle:
The kimchee was delicious, and who doesn’t like pickled green beans, but there were sadly no pickled eggs in site. I have always wanted to try one, although I imagine they taste like an egg that has been sitting in cider vinegar or something for three years.
We were a little dissappointed in the decorations for the fair. They apparently had live music, and there were kids getting their faces painted green. But this inflatable pickle was literally the only decoration on the entire street:
We waited in line for about 15 minutes to get a pickle or two from a local New York pickle maker. They came in half sour, full sour and hot. The half sour retained much of its snap and cucumber green, but lacked in the flavor department. The full sour was more in line with what you would get at a lunch counter- only better.
We figured that there would have to be someone dressed as a pickle (right?) and were dismayed at having seen none. But then, right as we received our free pickles we spotted the idiot in the pickle costume, and our trip was deemed a success.