Lost in History, Vol. 38

by |
09/12/2007 12:00 AM |

What’s green and curvy and bumpy and briny and delicious? No, not a soused, alcohol-sickened hipster stumbling to the L train on a Sunday morning at 4am — why, it’s pickles, of course! That crunchy, tangy, tubular complication of cucumbers, brine, spices, seasonings and love. Really, truly, if you can pull it out of the ground, it can be pickled: tomatoes, crab apples, beets, carrots, onions, bell peppers, potatoes and more were all on hand for puckered mouth-goodness at the 7th International Pickle Day, held yesterday on Orchard street on the Lower East Side. Pickles from different cultures and various slices of society were proudly representing: Korean kimchi and Indian curried slaw (served on slivers of Matzoh bread, no less!), half-sour and full-sour, kosher dill, organic, pesticide-free and locally produced, all up for sampling. There were lines down the block for free pickles from Guss’, that avatar of Lower East Side pickle nostalgia; a bunch of new and old restaurants on Orchard between Grand and Broome that were selling pickle-related eats and drinks (pickle pizza! A pickletini!), and the one, the only, Mr. Pickle on hand for pictures and kisses (ladies, he’s single!); yes indeed, it was a veritable pickle-topia of green glorious goodness. But how do pickles fit into the history and heritage of the Lower East Side? Well, ladies and gents, that’s my job, to explain away.

It’s common knowledge that the Lower East Side of the mid-19th to early-20th century was the stepping-stone for millions of immigrants, washed aboard these shores.  The original neighborhood, from 14th Street down to Canal, and from the Bowery to the East River, was chock-a-block with entire communities who deftly recreated their home villages in the rows upon rows of tenements — whole blocks were given over to small towns from Italy, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Germany and so on. As the immigrants made their way into this vast, frightening, yet promising new world, they found comfort as many of us nowadays do: in the pleasures of food. In order to set a trepidatious homesick immigrant at ease, just stick his or her face into a steaming bowl of (fill-in-the-homemade-ethnic-dish-here). Linguini Carbonata, stuffed cabbage, cold borscht, bratwurst, kielbasa, you name it, it did the trick and saved the soul of a saddened greenhorn, fresh off the boats.

There aren’t many foodstuffs that translate from culture to culture and continent to continent. Bread, milk, eggs, cheese — all these staples can be found across the oceans, but in terms of specific dishes, cross-cultural –culinary concoctions are hard to come by. Dumplings are one fine example — dim sum to the Chinese, pelmeni to the Russians, gyoza to the Japanese, pierogi to the Polish. Pickles, and pickled products, are another. In the era before easy refrigeration, food had to be preserved for long-term storage. Brining and squirreling away pickled meats, eggs, vegetables, and the like was a practice utilized by many families in the old world, and across the Atlantic in the new one as well. Regardless of ethnicity or religion, from Jew to Catholic to Chinese to Muslim, all these new citizens of America were consuming (some of) the same pickled products when lean times swung around.

What’s more, due to the basic economy of the pickle — they’re cheap and easy to produce, they have a long gestation period (which means the same pickle for sale in January can be bought and eaten in July), as well as a practically infinite shelf life, and can be devoured almost instantly — the pushcarts streets of the teeming Lower East Side were packed with pickle pushers. And since the pushcarts vendors were free (at the time) of governmental regulations, anybody could load up and push pickles — this allowed for vendors to eventually become owners and make their way up capitalism’s ladder. Originally, the pickle pushers used wooden barrels with steel bands — talk to any old time New Yorker from the LES and they’ll fondly remember the wooden barrels swimming with pickles, one for a penny. But ask a modern day pickler what happened to all those romantic old-school wooden barrels, and they’ll say good riddance! The wooden barrels were heavy, rotting with termites and overuse, full of holes and broke apart easily. The new modern ones (such as in use at Guss’ or the Pickle Guys) are one hundred percent plastic, and do the job one thousand percent better than the old wooden barrels. So next time you chomp down on a pickle, understand that you’re not just having a snack, you’re experiencing New York history! Viva la pickle!