In New York, pickles are a piece of history

ByAlex Meier WABC logo
Saturday, November 14, 2015

To New Yorkers, the pickle is more than a salty cucumber that pairs nicely with a burger.

"New York City should be called the Big Pickle instead of the Big Apple," says Alan Kufman of The Pickle Guys.

But what makes the pickle more "New York" than a bagel or a taxicab?

According to Lower East Side Tenement Museum associate Adam Steinberg, the pickle is - both literally and figuratively - a preserved memory, unique to the region.

"The pickle represents a New York that is disappearing, as it becomes a more gentrified, corporate chain store kind of place. We hunger for the artisanal, old-fashioned, handmade, personal relationship," he said. "It makes us feel like New York is unique and not just another big city."

In fact, New York City pickles are older than the city itself. The Dutch, and later the English, brought pickles from Europe. Without modern refrigeration, pickles provided these early settlers a way to eat veggies during the barren winter months.

But by the turn of the 19th century, the influx of immigration caused an explosion in pickle production. Unable to speak English, immigrants of Polish, German and Jewish decent employed themselves through buying pushcarts and selling pickles on the streets.

The first pushcart peddlers opened shop in the 1860s, said Steinberg, but by 1900, there were about 3,000 in the city, primarily in the Lower East Side. By 1910, the stench of dill and garlic clogged Essex Street, leaking into the walls of tenements and spilling into surrounding neighborhoods. The airspace was also overwhelmed with the sound of mothers haggling with pickle peddlers over mere pennies.

"Pennies were the difference between having to treat their sick child and burying their child," said Steinberg.

In time, a coalition of police, health and safety officials and store owners fought to jar up the pickled pandemonium. By 1940, New York City outright banned street commerce. Over the years, more and more pickle stores began to close up, leaving only a handful, like The Pickle Guys.

"People in all the stores get old, and their children don't want to go into this business because it's a lot of work. They smell like pickles. So they go and become dentists or accountants," said Kufman.

Still, Patricia Fairhurst, owner of Clinton Hill Pickles, sees a bright future for the pickle business.

"A lot of people, they're into healthier food, and a lot of kids, they eat more healthy," she says. "So it's kind of going in full circle."