New York City has been the home of many a great and beloved food: we’re the birthplace of such dishes as Baked Alaska, Lobster Newburg, and Eggs Benedict, and we’re known around the world for having the best damn cheesecakes, hot dogs, and pizza you’re ever going to find. But did you know that at the turn of the last century, one of the foods New York was best known for–and everyone went nuts over–were pickles??? Yes, that’s right, we were the damn pickle capital of the world! XD The art of pickling different foods has been around for over four thousand years, first starting as a method of preserving foods for out of season use. Unlike other methods of preservation, like salting or canning foods, pickling uses acidic solutions, like vinegar, and is anti-microbial in nature. You can keep pickled foods around for months without them spoiling–and if they’re sealed in an airtight container, like the canning process, then they can stay fresh and unspoiled for years! Of course, the tip-off is that the pickling process gives any food a sour taste. While this might not be appealing to everyone’s palate, there are some that just can’t get enough of the sourness that comes from pickling, on any food, from cabbage to tomatoes to the ubiquitous pickled cucumber. Almost every culinary culture throughout history has gotten wise to the preservation and taste properties of pickling, and pickled products like Korean kimchi have made waves around the world.
But nothing had it beat like late 19th century/early 20th century New York City. With the influx of immigrant populations coming into the city, inexpensive food products–and inexpensive preservation techniques to keep that food fresh–became in high demand, and the pickle empire was born. The Lower East Side became a veritable pickle paradise, with countless vendors filling the streets, with storefronts and pushcarts alike. The taste of pickled foods helped immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, remember their homelands, and selling pickles was an easy and profitable trade.
Nowadays, however, there are more underground music venues and falafel restaurants in the LES than pickle stalls. The only pickle joint still in the neighborhood is The Pickle Guys, owned by Alan Kaufman, a former employee of Guss’s Pickles. Guss’s had been on Orchart Street since 1910, but when they moved their operations to Brooklyn, Kaufman decided that he needed to continue the legacy of Lower East Side pickles. Using traditional pickling techniques of curing the veggies in wooden barrels, The Pickle Guys sell way more than just full- and half-soured cucumbers (though why you’d eat any pickle that’s less than full-sour is beyond me!). Pickled hot peppers, celery, watermelon, turnips, and even pineapples are available at their storefront, where you can actually see all of the pickles as they’re happily stewing in their brining solutions. The pickle empire of the Lower East Side may be a thing of the past, but The Pickle Guys are definitely keeping up the tradition with authenticity and style–and bringing pickling into the new millennium.
The Pickle Guys
49 Essex St (between Grand St & Hester St)
“Kaufman has worked with some of pickledom’s legendary entrepreneurs, including Ben Guss (of Guss’ Pickles) and Natie Hollander. He uses the traditional pickling methods handed down over the last century, with no chemicals or preservatives added. “I get a big kick when people eat my stuff and say wow, this is good,” Kaufman said. “This is a really friendly place. We kid around with the customers and keep a happy atmosphere going. It’s not really like work, it’s more like a family business.””–The Village Voice
“The daily grind produces remarkably fresh stock, from new to fully soured, with that perfect snap and spray in every bite. Kaufman ran the show at Guss’, but when the owners changed location, he got the feeling they’d lost interest in the business. Taking a space just down the block from the old store was a brilliant move. Tourists still flock there, and the line goes up the street, especially right before Passover, when the horseradish is freshly grated from morning till night—by an employee wearing a gas mask.”–New York Magazine
“Alan Kaufman makes his pickles the old-fashioned way, curing them in barrels with salt brine, garlic and spices for up to six months. Not a big fan of the cucumber variety? Kaufman pickles everything from tomatoes and carrots to peppers and pineapples. (Yes, really!)”–Time Out New York
“No one pickles quite like The Pickle Guys, who produce barrel cured pickles for the lower East Side, Brooklyn, and beyond. Owner Alan Kaufman and his team pickle everything from their famous sour pickles ($6.25/quart) to seasonal pickled pineapple ($11.25/quart), and most recently, pickled turnips ($11.50/quart). Essex St., which used to be home to famous pickler Guss’ (which has since moved to Brooklyn) among others, is now ruled by Kaufman and his guys, who keep an old school New York tradition alive with every barrel.”–New York Daily News
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Finally made it there for the first time a few weeks ago. Can I just point out that everyone working there is fricken awesome. Who knew buying pickles could be so entertaining. I like how things are displayed in the big barrels. Makes me hungry. Me and my hubby opted for a quart of sour pickles. The fella helping us even offered us pickles for immediate consumption, which my husband took (I have a weird thing about touching pickles). To say we are addicts now is an understatement. They’re like crack, and now I need a daily fix or else I like twitch or something. We were back the next weekend to buy more (pacing ourselves the quart didn’t last a week), this time in addition to the half gallon of pickles we decided we required, I also grabbed some pickled hot peppers – definitely eyeing up the pickled garlic and onions for next time. Seriously pickle guys, how are you sooo good.”–Jenni B.
“Very small, and really, just barrels and barrels of pickled items. It really is a lot to take in, especially if you don’t know what to get. The guy who helped us did let us try a few items and my favorite was defnitely the spicy pickled pineapple. It’s my first time having anything like it and just the uniqueness of it makes me like this place. In the end though, we decided to get their pickles, and he suggested full sour so we got our 3 pickles for $2 each and walked out ready to try it. My friend took the first bite and had this scrunched up face immediately. I didn’t really believe that it could be that sour but holy bejesus it is sour. In fact, all 5 of us thought the pickle was too intense and only managed to kill one of them. It probably didn’t help that all of us had doughnuts prior to Pickle Guys :P However we met up with a few friends of ours in NY, and they all loved the full sour. “Perfectly pickled” they said and we just stared at them as they eat the pickle as if it is nothing. Then they started to make fun of us. Bastards.”–Duke C.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!