Volume 76, Number 18 | September 20 - 26, 2006

What the dill? A parade of pickles on Orchard St.

By Jefferson Siegel

It’s not certain if the Earl of Sandwich ever rose from dining, turned to a server and cried out, “My kingdom for a pickle!” What is certain is wherever his eponymous delicacy is served these days, a small green plug shares the plate.

Pickles aren’t just a dining accessory. There are delis that feature bowls of different varieties of the humble cucumber on each table. And for the past several years, this understated gherkin has even had its own festival.

Last Sunday the calendar should have been marked with a green dill as Pickle Day was celebrated on the Lower East Side, an area once home to over 100 businesses involved in the preservation of food. The epicenter of the area’s pickled delights is Orchard St., and it took a whole city block to display just some of the varieties available.

If there is one storefront that most local grandparents would recognize, it would be Guss’ Pickles. The shop, originally opened on Hester St. in 1920, today thrives in a world of processed fast foods. On Pickle Day, barrels were set up in front of the store, tempting passersby and festivalgoers with half-sours, sours and news. A sign in the window asks customers to resist their natural urges, urging them to, “Please keep hands out of barrels.”

Pat Fairhurst is the third-generation owner of this culinary landmark.

“They’re good. Quality,” she said when asked to explain why dozens of people lined up for a half-sour. “We make sure they only get the best ingredients. Like all vegetables, the younger they are, the better tasting they are. There’s not so many seeds so they don’t bloat as much,” she added as another customer handed a worker a dollar bill and got in return a small plastic bag with two of the freshest half-sours this side of a farm.

“Pickles are tasty,” agreed Dara Lehon, deputy executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. “That was my breakfast this morning. My favorite is the new,” she continued as crowds wandered from tent to tent to watch demonstrations of canning, gourmet pickling and, of course, to sample. “Not many people know about new pickles. The full sours are what people think of as pickles. There’s also three-quarter sours, there’s half-sours, obviously, and now there’s also spicy ones that will knock your socks off,” Lehon noted.

Why, though, a pickle festival as opposed to say, a milkshake festival?

“The Lower East Side was the original pickle district,” Lehon explained. “Ludlow and Orchard Sts. used to have a lot of picklers and cucumber distributors.” At the turn of the last century there were about 100 picklers in the neighborhood. Today there are two; Guss’ on Orchard St. and The Pickle Guys on Essex St.

Still, a festival for preserved vegetables?

“One of the reasons for Pickle Day is to celebrate the multicultural pickling that we have here,” Lehon said. “We have Asian pickling, we have Haitian pickling, we have the Jewish pickling, we have Korean pickling.” And, it’s not just the green cucumber that foodies preserve these days. Mushrooms, lemons, green beans, kraut and the familiar pickled herring each have their own vinegar pool.

The tent for Wheelhouse Pickles from Brooklyn was a popular stop on the dill tour. Owner John Orren started the business six months ago and now produces eight varieties of pickles using local ingredients from Hudson Valley, New Jersey and Pennsylvania farmers. To distinguish his product from other brine-barreled mass production, he uses “vinegars that aren’t always associated with pickling, like beer and rice wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, a lot of vegetable juices. Our beets are pickled in watercress juice, orange juice, fennel juice,” he said, as a line of people waited patiently for a paper plate with pungently colorful samples.

At the other end of the festival, people in a long line anxiously eyed a man filling plastic bags with two free pickles of their choice. Their benefactor, Milton Garlic (“I’ll show you I.D. if you like”) of The Pickle Guys plunged a plastic-gloved hand into a series of barrels over and over to fulfill requests. Two sours, a sour and a half, a half and a new.

“I just love pickles, it’s a good business,” he explained, turning to a waiting gourmand. “Wadda ya need?” Garlic asked, sizing up the man and almost anticipating his request, reaching toward one brimming barrel as the man replied, “Two sours!”

This pantheon of pickle purveyors also boasted old-timers like Russ & Daughters, as well as recent arrivals like Rick’s Picks.

“We’ve been here since 2004 and we’re going to be here for a long time,” owner Rick Field said. “Regardless of what culture they come from, regardless of their socioeconomic background, there’s a lot of traditions that cross ethnic and cultural lines that involve pickling,” he added. Sounds like a sound rationale for moving the United Nations to the Lower East Side.

Green T-shirts emblazoned with the preserved vegetable of the day were on sale, as well as books, including “Wild Fermentation” and “Pickled: Preserving a World of Tastes and Traditions.” The L.E.S. BID had books offering visitors the opportunity jot down their pickle thoughts. And if all the tasting still left you hungry, one table cooked up a unique grilled cheese sandwich for a growing line of famished festivalgoers. Rick’s Picks provided the pickled green tomatoes, Saxelby Cheesemongers of Essex St. the dairy and Little Giant of Orchard St. performed the cooking honors.

Besides piles of pickled peppers, the festival was a chance to clarify a medical myth. A pregnant Rebecca Shahar admitted to a fondness for sours and garlic dills even before she started eating for two.

“I loved pickles before, so I definitely maintained my pickle craving,” she said. Confirmation came from husband Jed.
At 3 a.m., “It’s chocolate chip cookies, not pickles,” he laughed.

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