Feeling the Crunch: NYC Picklefest ‘08

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New Yorkers crammed into the street at today’s eighth annual NYC International Pickle Day like so many Kirby cukes in a barrel. Pickle-makers from Essex Street to South Korea came to sample and sell their wares to an eager audience of thousands.

Where was I last year on pickle day? you might be wondering, but in fact, you were probably here, on Orchard Street, biting into one of Guss’ famous three-quarter sours with it’s crisp, salty bite that’s more refreshing than a gulp of Gatorade. According to the folks at Guss’, the festival has been packed every year since the New York Food Museum began sponsoring it in 2001.

“People come to me and ask, is this like vlasik?” said Nick Horman, of Horman’s Best Pickles, proving that most people’s pickle memories come off the shelf, not out of the barrel. Guss’ is the only surviving pickle company left from the early 20th century, when New York City experienced a pickle renaissance, complete with a “Pickle District” all its own. But New Yorkers proved today that they’d rather have the real thing. Fifty-foot lines wound around every booth as people waited for a taste of hot dills, preserved beets or pickled ginger.

So how does a homely, warty, common thing like a pickle draw a crowd like this eight years running? “The heritage piece is very important” said Rick Field, of Rick’s Picks, “There’s pickles in every culture…people remember pickles from their mom, their grandma.” Rick himself got started pickling in the kitchen with his mom and dad, and his story is a common one. Bob McClure used his great-grandmother’s spicy dill recipe to start McClure’s Pickles with his brother, Joe. Nick Horman is a third-generation pickle-man, who started retailing on his own in 2003. For another slant on heritage, the folks at Adamah talked about Tikkun Olam and healing the world through sustainable agriculture while serving up samples of green beans and kimchee to a long line of suitors.

Picklemakers love to talk about the broad appeal of their product. “They’re very democratic,” said Rick Field, while standing next to a hand-painted, “Rick’s Picks for Obama” sign. His point was made for him by the vast display of cultures among both the products and the attendees. The pickle purveyors hawked everything from kosher dills to kimchee to pickle truffles, a chocolate-dipped parzipan and pickle confection made by Roni-Sue’s Chocolates for the festival every year.

Heritage and diversity were on the tip of every pickle-maker’s tongue, and perhaps that’s why the Food Museum has made pickles such a focus in its exhibits and programming since the museum started up in 1997. The museum has a “pickle wing”, and even provides pickle recipes on its website. Heritage and diversity are two of the watchwords of the sustainable agriculture movement too, and pickling goes even further in it’s parallels for all of sustainable ag. Pickles are about the preserving the past, they’re about saving for the future, they’re about great taste and seasonal food for a year-round world. They’re about community, and if today’s crammed fest was any indication, the community is all about them.

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2 Responses to “Feeling the Crunch: NYC Picklefest ‘08”

  1. Jeff Says:

    …and pickles are all about culture. It’s the culture of the craft and the very cultures that serve to ferment the healthy lacto-fermented pickles of my own Polish Heritage.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post about the festival, Nina. I was at the festival and it was a lovely spectacle and a delicious day, and I must sat that Adamah’s pickles were among the best. Perhaps I’m biased, though, as I’m returning to the farm to pickle for a few months.

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