They've been a part of New York identity for long, as much as bagels or the Empire State Building. But with traditionally preserved, brined cucumbers disappearing, the city's famous tradition seems to be in a pickle today.
- People line up to order home-made pickles at The Pickle Guys
- An employee peels radish roots to make fresh horseradish at The Pickle Guys
- An employee puts fresh horseradish in jars at The Pickle Guys
Pickles, dills, gherkins and their cousins still pop up in every convenience store and pastrami sandwich, but these are nearly always industrial versions from sealed jars filled with chemicals, as well as brine.
AdvertisementOne of the last places selling real pickles -- the crunchy, hand-crafted, Jewish pickles of New York lore -- is the tiny Pickle Guys store in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
"This is pickle Mecca," said Michael Dansky, 52, who came all the way from Boston with a cooler to stock up. "They are the last of the real pickle people."
The store -- a cave-like space crammed with barrels of pickles -- is all that remains of this once Jewish-dominated neighborhood's pickle industry. A century ago, as many as 150 other pickle places would have been doing business within a short walk.
One of the stalwarts, the venerable Guss' Pickles, closed down just last year.
Many of the staff at Pickle Guys used to work at Guss'. They believe their mix of authenticity and willingness to try new products allows them to hang on.
"Customers come because their parents bought pickles and it's a tradition," said Mike Chu, a 13-year veteran pickler.
"Yeah, they say there were up to 30 pickle places around here right until the 70s," said William Soo, 29, as he pushed raw horseradish through a grinder. "We're the last one now."
Although the grinder was out on the sidewalk, Soo's eyes teared up from the fumes -- the gas mask hanging on the wall behind him was not just for show.
Crowds of Jews shopping for Passover feasts exited the kosher-certified store, their containers crammed with sours, sweet pickles, hot pickles, tomatoes, horseradish and much else.
They confessed to apprehension about this institution's future.
"I don't know what can survive any more. It seems to be every day that somewhere closes to be replaced by a bank or a chain store," said photographer Andrew Federman, 35. "It's really sad."
Unlikely saviors are stepping in for the New York pickle, not least Shamus Jones, a tattooed entrepreneur from Brooklyn.
Jones, 29, is not Jewish. His pickles have little to do with standard kosher fare -- or the old-fashioned street vendor atmosphere of a place like the Pickle Guy. He doesn't even have a storefront.
Jones's crew of four work all night in a Brooklyn restaurant kitchen and sell their wares through the Internet and distribution deals with organic shops and foodie havens like the Whole Foods chain.
His products -- like delicately spiced eggplant, garlic scapes, and lavender asparagus -- are probably not what grandma served.
Basic pickling really just involves a brine or vinegar solution to preserve vegetables.
Jones gives his veggies a more luxurious bath -- lemon, mint and smoked paprika brine for the eggplant, or apple cider vinegar, fair trade sugar, mustard seeds and chile flakes, among other things, for his serrano beans.
Even the "NYC Deli Style Cucumber" comes steeped in sophisticated juices comprising everything from garlic and dill to "an extra hint" of evaporated cane sugar, caraway, and peppercorns.
"We don't do standard. We add a twist. The standard's already been done, but that's the beauty of food. You can do anything," Jones said.
Brooklyn is home to several other pickling start-ups, places like Rick's Picks, all finding ingenious ways to revive a slice of New York life.
"The whole dill image, that Lower East Side pickle presence -- it's pretty much non-existent right now, but I think that's still partly why we've been successful," Jones said.
"We couldn't have done the same thing as fast as we have in Idaho or somewhere."
Meanwhile, New York bars are serving increasing quantities of Pickleback -- a shot of Jameson's whiskey, chased with a shot of pickle juice.
Brooklyn is claimed as birthplace of the supposedly hangover-beating combo, but it's national now. The Washington Post this March called Picklebacks "simply awesome..., one of those awesome combinations."
Nancy Ralph, director of the NY Food Museum, said all that innovation means pickles are here to stay.
"That's the exciting thing about this. People really are taking it on again and bringing it back," Ralph said.
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