Fermentation and pickling are food preservation techniques that form important parts of the food traditions of many global cultures. Different pickling mediums, sometimes infused with spices, are used to extend the lifespans of seasonal, perishable foods. Pickled foods have historically been used to sustain travelers on long sea voyages, and are a vital functional source of food for families living in remote locations facing harsh winter climates and no access to fresh produce.
There is much folklore and many stories are told about the origins of pickling. However, archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the oldest known records were from ancient Mesopotamia in around 2400 BC. The New York Museum of Food have created this fascinating chronological timeline documenting the history of pickles.
Every country and culture has it own regional pickling traditions based on local ingredients and tastes. Furthermore, with the global movement of people and food, these once local foods have been transformed beyond their functional roots into gourmet, world-famous delicacies. One such example is the Eastern European tradition of pickling that became synonymous with the Lower East Side of New York City’s borough of Manhattan in the early 20th century.
The influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants settling in the Lower East Side at that time, resulted in food businesses being established that catered to the dietary requirements and tastes of the community. The area’s demographic has changed a lot in the ensuing years, as the neighbourhood has moved beyond it’s Jewish working class roots and has become increasingly gentrified. However, there is still evidence of it’s past Jewish food heritage, in the form of Kossar’s Bialys, Katz’s Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel, Russ & Daughters and, of course, The Pickle Guys.
The Pickle Guys is the last remaining pickle shop in the Lower East Side. They sell an exhaustive selection of barrel-aged pickles that range from traditional pickled cucumbers; to more innovative varieties such as okra, carrots, mango and horseradish. The recipe for their bestselling traditional sour, half-sour and new cucumber pickles hasn’t changed over time and remains the same as it was in 1910: cucumbers, pickle spices, garlic and saltwater.
I spoke to Alan Kaufman, the owner of The Pickle Guys, who told me the story of his business. You can hear the interview by clicking on the play button below.