There are few things as emblematic of New York City as a signature yellow cab or a slice of pizza; but to those on the Lower East Side, there exists nothing of greater pride than the pickle.
The pickle invokes a universal memory of a bygone era for generations of New Yorkers, and the crunchy snack is actually older than the city itself. A non-refrigerated alternative to vegetables in the barren winter months, the New York pickle harks back to the earliest settlers, when the Dutch and later the English brought them from Europe.
During the early 19th century, mass immigration brought on a boom in pickle production, and non-English speaking Polish, German, and Jewish immigrants began selling their pickles to customers on the street using pushcarts. The first peddlers appeared on the Lower East Side in the 1860s, and by 1900, there were about 3,000 pickle vendors throughout the city.
Orchard and Essex Streets soon stank of dill and garlic, spilling into walls and tenement buildings in the area, and a citywide fight against the pickle began. By 1940, New York City had banned all street commerce, forcing many picklers to close shop, and only a handful are still around today.
Bringing the pickle to the 21st century
The Lower East Side Partnership’s Pickle Day, which will mark its 19th year on Oct. 14, is “a literal slice of history.”
Although the Tenement Museum takes on the task of retelling the neighborhood’s history year-round, Pickle Day truly brings it to life. The partnership recreates the “bargain district,” pushcarts and all, and features more than 50 local restaurants and vendors, including a few who helped put the area on the pickle map centuries earlier.
“Pickle Day really seeks to bring back that community feel,” says Laura Carlson, the design and community development director for the Lower East Side Partnership. But the event welcomes far more attendees than the picklers of yesteryear ever saw, with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people between Delancey and Houston streets throughout the course of the day.
And while a love of pickles is certainly appreciated, it’s far from necessary. Pickle Day also offers foods like pizza, paninis and ice cream to those who aren’t gung-ho for gherkins, or even for those who need a short break from the salty snack.
The community-oriented event prides itself on having something for all ages, with live DJs, a face-painter, dozens of games (including a pickle toss), balloon animals, and even a life-size, talking pickle on offer. Pickle Day attracts the very youngest of attendees to the very oldest, and four-legged canine friends also are welcome.
Picking the Best Pickles
One of Pickle Day’s shining moments is its annual pickling contest.
With more than 170 submissions just this year, the contest welcomes traditional pickled cucumbers as well as other pickled items — notable entries from previous years include pickled grapes and pickled watermelon. The pickling contest sees submissions from all over the world and this year, will feature a pickled item all the way from Japan.
In the past, the contest’s winner has been decided by a panel of expert judges, but this year, the first round of judging will be open to the public. The food industry expert panel will then make the final verdict at 3:30 p.m.
The Pickle Guy(s)
For Al Kaufman, owner of local favorite and Pickle Day star vendor, The Pickle Guys, it’s all about upholding tradition. The pickle aficionado, who worked at Gus’s Pickles before opening his own shop, likes to think of the business as “a living museum.”
The Essex Street shop brings several barrels of its famous pickles to Pickle Day and gives its product away for free. “It’s about paying homage to pickles,” says Kaufman, “and we enjoy doing it.”
And the giveaways seem to pay off. “Pickle Day is always one of our busiest days in the shop because of all the new customers,” the owner explains, noting that many try one pickle at the event and walk to the Pickle Guys store, just four blocks away, to buy a jar or two to take home.
“We make things the right way,” Kaufman says, with reference to the lengthy process his shop goes through to get the perfect pickle. (Sour pickles take about three months to make, while half sour take roughly two weeks.)
Even the smell of dill and garlic that once haunted the Lower East Side has found a loving home at The Pickle Guys. “At least a hundred times a day, I hear people say, ‘wow, that smells like heaven’ when they come into the shop,” Kaufman says with a smile.
The pickle vendor, which started with just five barrels of only the classics and has since added 35 more barrels to its regular lineup, some featuring pickled Brussels sprouts, mangoes and pineapple, has participated in Pickle Day every year since it began.
“It’s a really positive thing,” says Kaufman. “It has nothing to do with politics, or race, or anything controversial. It’s just a nice event that celebrates pickles.”
To join in on the pickling good time, head to Orchard Street between Houston and Delancey on Oct 14 from noon to 5 p.m.