Horse manure, garbage, and pickles.
These were some of the scents that wafted through the air of the Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pickles were a dietary staple of many immigrants, especially Eastern European Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. Pickles were easy to eat, cheap, available in all seasons, and they did not require refrigeration. Pickle pushcarts lined the commerce-cramped streets of the neighborhood which welcomed many of the more than two-and-a-half million Jewish newcomers who arrived between 1880 and 1924, the height of Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States. The ease in producing, storing and cheaply selling pickles made them a culinary staple for the large immigrant population of the Lower East Side.
Pickles have been in existence for thousands of years and are found in many cultures. According to the New York Food Museum, the earliest known example of pickles occurred in 2030 BC when native Indians brought cucumbers to the Tigris Valley. Pickles are also mentioned in the bible. “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5).
Famous lovers of pickles include Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington, Napoleon, Cleopatra, and Thomas Jefferson, who was reputed to say, “On a hot day in Virginia, I know of nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle.” William Shakespeare not only peppered his plays with references to pickles, but he also introduced the use of the word “pickle” as a metaphor. In Hamlet, Shakespeare writes, “Oh, Hamlet, how camest thou in such a pickle?” Even Napoleon valued pickles as a health asset for his armies. He believed in the power of pickles so much that he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to anyone who could develop a way to preserve this food item and others safely.
With this rich history of the pickle I decided to taste for myself and come up with my own opinion of this age-old food item. I headed to The Pickle Guys on Essex Street, the last remaining pickle vendor on the Lower East Side. The Pickle Guys make barrel cured pickles, an old Eastern European technique. The Pickle Guys store their pickles in barrels, from a day up to six months, where the pickles cure as they sit in salt brine with garlic and spices.
I tried two of The Pickle Guys’ pickled items: the classic sour pickle and pickled pineapple, a newcomer to the Lower East Side. The sour pickle offered an even, sour taste at every bite and a soft crunch, indicating it had bathed awhile in the brine. The pickled pineapple offered a taste I had never experienced before. The pineapple had the classic brine taste, but at the end of the bite came a cayenne pepper and clover kick. Eating this pickled pineapple was a nice introduction for my palate to the many cultures that use the pickling technique and that are present on the Lower East Side.
I began my understanding of the historically vibrant community of the Lower East Side on a neighborhood walking tour with the Museum’s Education Associate Rachel Serkin. Learning of the overwhelming pickle presence on the Lower East Side during the late 19th and early 20th centuries piqued my curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the role of the pickle on and its relationship with the Lower East Side. I also began to reflect on the presence and impact of food in my own life.
My upbringing in the state of Iowa where I had the fortune of being raised in a farming family helped me understand the importance of food for a family and way of life. I have vivid childhood memories when it comes to canning and preserving a variety of vegetables, particularly during the oppressively humid mid-August days in the farm house that had no central air conditioning (even to this day). I wore jeans and a white T-shirt with my hair pulled back. I stood at the sink with the windows above facing the corn crib, chicken coop, and cattle barn while I cleaned the fresh black dirt from the carrots and green beans I harvested in the dewy morning. My grandmother stood just to the left and behind me at the stove boiling mason jars to sterilize and ready them for canning. This process of canning brought several generations of the family together. During the long humid days my family members and I would talk, argue, and laugh. We learned about each other and in some ways became closer as a result. These memories of canning help me see the intimate relationship between food and a family culture.
I understand how concrete yet fluid food is in a culture and in society at large. Food is meant to be shared and appreciated. Food serves as a nonverbal form of cultural communication among people who may never step foot on a farm or conversely travel to a densely populated metropolitan city. I find that understanding from where a food item originates makes eating that food more enjoyable. From its numbing smell, its crunch, and the sour aftertaste, the pickle serves as a physical and emotional reminder of where many immigrants and descendants of immigrants came from. The pickle is a perfect example of how knowing its long history in the world and on the Lower East Side makes every bite that much more satisfying.
Researched and written by Sydney Bergman, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern