Monday, January 30, 2012

Salty, Sour and Controversial: A Quick History of the Pickle

This is the second in a series of 6 articles by Educator Judy Levin, originally written as research for our “Foods of the Lower East Side" tasting tour. During the coldest months of January and February, we're offering a modified indoor version of the tour.

A true story: two old Jewish guys get into a fight about whether a kosher pickle is preserved in vinegar or in brine, a salt solution. The argument escalates until they are questioning each other’s Judaism, insulting each other’s ancestors (who must have come from a strange little hick town to be so ill-informed), and reaching no conclusion except that the other guy is SO wrong.

People have strong feelings about pickles.

Classic Dill Pickles

Pickling is one of the oldest ways of preserving foods. It goes back 4,000 or 5,000 years in the Middle and Far East. Recipes for pickled fruits and vegetables (also meats, but that’s another story) came to America with the Dutch and English, who had eaten them in the old country and on the ships coming over. Pickles were a part of American cuisine, not just before the Jewish deli, but even before there was a United States!

"The Dill Pickle Rag", c.1906

To the question of method: either vinegar or brine will work. Vinegar is faster, but brining fruits and vegetables allows for fermentation, which creates different flavors. The Pickle Guy, one of the last of the Lower East Side pickle makers, traces his recipe back to Poland. He packs uncooked cucumbers in brine solution. Sarah Levy, writing the first Jewish cookbook in America, used vinegar. Other pickle recipes compromise by suggesting either salting the vegetables before preserving them in vinegar, or preserving them in brine and then flavoring them with vinegar. Of course there are also less traditional approaches: in Mississippi, they put sour pickles in Kool-aid.

About half of the city’s 200 or so Jewish pickle shops were on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. In a 1929 Saturday Evening Post article the writer says, “There is one store on Hester Street . . . which probably contains enough pickles to have exhausted the entire cucumber crop of the Eastern seaboard”. But why the cucumber? Historically, pickles have also made from cabbage (sauerkraut), green tomatoes, turnips, mushrooms, walnuts, nasturtiums, and just about anything else we eat. For much of the world, for much of history, pickled vegetables were all the vegetables you were likely to eat during winter.

The eventual dominance of the cucumber pickle may be based less on ethnic Jewish cuisine than on the influence of the Heinz Company. By the late 1800s, Heinz had bought its own Long Island cucumber farms, displayed its products at the 1893 World’s Fair, and advertised widely: Where the Flatiron Building now stands, a six-foot, light-up Heinz cucumber pickle once stood.

The Heinz Company c.1910; Image courtesy American Antiquarian

Given the importance of pickles in most cultures and for thousands of years, it seems odd that between about the 1820s and 1920s, many American reformers, dieticians, and food faddists rejected the pickle, vehemently. When in the 1920s dietician Bertha Wood wrote that Jewish pickles interfered with “assimilation,” her concern was both for the assimilation of food into the body and the assimilation of foreigners into American culture. Like alcohol, strong flavors or stimulants of any kind (spices, coffee, vinegar) seemed likely to overstimulate the senses, the stomach—and the social order.
Mexican Pickled Vegetables; Photo by Amber Gress

Pickled Chinese Long Beans; Image courtesy SeriousEats

American pickles are more diverse than ever before, with most immigrant groups bringing their own versions. They’re celebrated each year at a Lower East Side International Pickle Day, which features Middle Eastern pomegranate pickled turnips, Chinese pickled lemons, Japanese plums, and Indian mangoes, as well as sauerkraut and cucumbers. In fact, if you wanted to use one type of food to survey all of American culture, the pickle might be it. Pickles preserve food—but also memories of childhood or home.

--Posted by Tenement Museum Educator Judy Levin

For more reading on this subject:

On the history of pickling, Lucy Norris in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (Oxford University Press, 2004).

The Sensible Cook, Peter Rose’s modern translation of a popular 17th century Dutch cookbook (Syracuse U. Press, 1989.)

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGhee, (New York: Scribner, 2004).

Pickles in Many Tongues at Lower East Side Festival,”  Jennifer 8 Lee, The New York Times, 9/12/2008

"How to Quick Pickle", Serious Eats, 5/21/10


  1. And pickle lovers might want to check out the Pickle Project exploring pickling and other food preserving and eating traditions in Ukraine.

  2. Very interesting,,,


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.