Popularized in America by Jews, pickles pack a punch

Alan Kaufman, owner of The Pickle Guys, the only pickle store in the once pickle-filled Lower East Side of Manhattan, June 2012.  (Josh Lipowsky)

Alan Kaufman, owner of The Pickle Guys, the only pickle store in the once pickle-filled Lower East Side of Manhattan, June 2012. (Josh Lipowsky)

TEANECK, N.J. (JTA) — Walk into a kosher deli and a big bowl of pickles is typically waiting at the table. 

Ever wondered why?

“Pickles are vital to the deli experience,” says Rabbi Gil Marks, author of “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” 

Deli mavens know that the tastiest cuts of pastrami and corned beef are also the fattiest, but after a few mouthfuls the fat covers the palate and masks the flavor of the meat, Marks explains. Just as wine does with chicken or meat dishes, he says, a pickle cleanses the palate between bites, so the flavor of the hot pastrami on rye continues to shine, while also interacting with the sandwich, creating new flavors. 

July marks National Pickle Month, which “originated as a way for people to honor and appreciate all types of pickles,” says Brian Bursiek, executive vice president of Pickle Packers International, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents the worldwide pickled vegetable industry.

And honor the pickle we have. Americans put away more than 2.5 billion pounds of pickles each year, and the North American pickle industry is valued at about $1.5 billion annually, according to Pickle Packers.

Folks have been chomping on pickles, which take their name from the German “pokel” — meaning salt and brine — for some 4,000 years in one form or another. (Disclaimer: The writer is the 2011 Teaneck Pickle-Eating Champion.)

Sours and half-sours are the most popular flavors in the New York area, but not so much with out-of-towners, says Stephen Leibowitz, chief pickle maven (the title on his business card) of United Pickle in the Bronx, N.Y., the largest Jewish-owned pickle plant in the country and also one of the oldest. In the Southwest, for example, spicier pickles tend to tempt palates more, according to Pickle Packers, and Leibowitz says that hot and spicy pickle chips are gaining popularity nationwide.

If there’s a consensus choice, it’s the dill pickle, followed by sweet pickles, according to Bursiek. Among the most popular dill pickles is the kosher dill.

“It’s what you call a universal American pickle,” Leibowitz says. 

Universal indeed: From France to Israel to Dubai, the most popular product shipped overseas by United Pickle is the kosher dill. In addition to its flavor, Leibowitz credits the kosher dill’s longer shelf life for its attractiveness abroad.

Despite its name, the kosher dill has nothing to do with the pickle’s adherence to kosher laws. 

“The name ‘kosher’ was likely carried forward by generations who remember popular TV advertising during the ’70s,” Bursiek says, likely referring to the Vlasik  commercials. “It brought a lot of attention to their brand, but also to the pickle category in general.

“Typically it is a pickle made in the traditional manner of Jewish New York City pickle makers, with a generous addition of garlic to the brine.”

Unlike the sours and half-sours, the dill pickles also get a dose of dill seasoning in the brine.

As with many other types of food, Jews did not invent the pickle or the pickling process, but they did popularize it, which is why the Jewish style of preparation became a standard.

Sours and half-sours — prepared in salted water brines — don’t include dill, but the common denominator among all three types, and what separates the kosher dill from other dills, is garlic. Its addition, which is credited with why the kosher moniker stuck even after kosher dills became the pickle of choice for mass production, is purely Jewish. 

“We adapt foods to our taste,” Marks says. “One of the things Jews, particularly Ashkenazic Jews, love is putting garlic in things.”

Some 100,000 to 250,000 acres in more than 30 states are devoted to growing pickling cucumbers, according to Bursiek. Despite the geographic diversity of pickle production, when talking about the kosher dill, the focus always comes back to New York City, the gateway to the United States for the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who brought their pickling prowess with them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“When [Jewish immigrants] came in 1910, they came here with no skills,” says Alan Kaufman, owner of The Pickle Guys, the last remaining pickle store on the Lower East Side’s famed Essex Street. “They did what they knew how to do: They made pickles. It’s an inexpensive item to make; it’s an inexpensive item to buy. And when people buy it, it tastes like home.”

Kosher dills may be an homage to the glory days of Jewish pickling, but the days when Essex Street was known for its assortment of pickle purveyors are long gone, and Kaufman doesn’t see them returning. 

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when travel over New York’s bridges was severely curtailed, Guss’ Pickles, one of the oldest and most famous Lower East Side pickle establishments, lost the majority of its foot traffic and closed its doors. United Pickle, which had been supplying Guss’ with its pickles for decades, bought the name and now the label can be found in stores across America — a far cry from the Lower East Side pickle storefronts of yore. 

“You can’t pay the rent just standing in the store selling pickles,” Leibowitz says. 

Kaufman, a former employee of the Guss’ store, disagrees. He opened his shop shortly after Guss’ closed and has more than 30 pickled concoctions, including pickled pineapple, pickled garlic, pickled tomatoes and, of course, the kosher dill – all pickled in house. His customers include a number of regulars, as well as tourists nostalgic for the old Lower East Side experience. 

Earlier this year, his store was featured on Food Network’s “Next Food Network Star” as part of a culinary tour of the neighborhood.

“Pickles are timeless,” Kaufman says. “The neighborhood is not always going to be the same, but pickles will always be here.”

While Jews may have popularized pickles in Europe and the U.S., it was the Chinese who more than 2,400 years ago created the modern form of pickling. They used a process called lacto-fermentation, Marks explains, that didn’t reach Eastern Europe until the 1500s. In this version, only a little salt is added to water to create the brine, which then produces forms of acid and healthy bacteria — Lactobacillus. 

“Pickling was something even the poorest of people could do. All you needed was salt and a little water and a barrel,” Marks says. 

Many of the brands on store shelves today labeled “kosher dills” aren’t true kosher dills, Marks says. Historically, kosher dills were prepared in a salted water brine with garlic and dill, but many mass manufacturers began using vinegar-based brines decades ago to save time. Vinegar, he says, throws off the flavor, so to get that authentic kosher dill flavor, it’s best to find a pickler using natural brines. 

“If you have a great sandwich and a rotten pickle, you’re going to say the whole meal stinks,” Kaufman asserts. “But if you have a great sandwich and a great pickle, you’ve got a great meal.”

Kaufman says everyone should try pickling. 

“Like making beer or wine, pickling’s a great thing,” he says. “It’s not too hard; it just takes a lot of practice.”

How does the process differ for half-sours, full-sours and the kosher dill? It’s all about the amount of time the cucumber stays in the brine. At United Pickle, for example, fresh cucumbers will sit in saltwater brine with garlic and spices for at least 45 days to become full-sour pickles. The Pickle Guys keep half-sours in the brine for two weeks, while the full sours soak for at least three months. Kosher dills, meanwhile, include dill and sit in the brine for a minimum of 10 days.

Pickling at home

Want to make pickles at home? Here are a few guidelines, courtesy of www.howtopickle.com:

Pick the firmest cucumbers you can find and make sure they are thoroughly cleaned.

Tightly pack your cukes into canning jars.

Mix your brine ingredients together and bring them to a boil, then pour the brine into the jars.

Depending on the type of pickle you want, your pickles will be ready the next day (new or half-sours) or a few months later (full-sours). The longer the pickle stays in the brine, the sourer it will become.

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