Places that Matter

The Pickle Guys

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The Pickle Guys, photo by Elena Martinez
The Pickle Guys, photo by Elena Martinez
Barrels of pickles, photo by Elena Martinez
The last pickle store on Essex Street
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Alan Kaufman owns the Pickle Guys, one of the last pickle stores on the Lower East Side. Pickled cucumbers achieved great popularity in many parts of Europe and the Middle East, but arguably nowhere more than among eastern European Jews, who ate them with black bread and later potatoes as the bulk of their diet (from Olive Trees and Honey by Rabbi Gil Marks 2004) Since 1910, the neighborhood was seen numerous pickle stores come and go, but according to the New York Food Museum, pickling was a booming business in the early 1900s. Over 200 pickle shops have opened their doors, and customers' noses, for decades. Kaufman's former employer, Guss' Pickles, left Essex Street in 2002. The Pickle Guys are just down the block from the old store. Now only a handful remain in the environs, and the Pickle Guys can claim the distinction of being the last of their briny kind on Essex Street.

Al makes his pickles from an old Eastern European recipe “Just the way mom use to make them.” This is a barrel cured pickle. The pickles are made by letting them sit in salt brine with garlic, spices, and no preservatives. Storing them in barrels, from a day up to six months, the pickles cure as they sit. Along with pickles, Kaufman also brought back old traditional items such as Pickled Watermelon & Russell Borscht. Over the years he also added new items including Pickled Turnips and Pickled Pineapples.Tuesday is pickling day. Every Tuesday, a truck pulls up to The Pickle Guys and drops off thousands of cucumbers. Kaufman pours about 2,000 of them into a barrel to start.

Two weeks before Passover he brings the operation outside and they grind horseradish from freshly peeled roots. Tourists still flock there, and the line goes up the street, especially right before Passover, when the horseradish is freshly grated from morning till night - by an employee wearing a gas mask.  The employee then loads dozens of horseradish roots into an industrial grinder all day.  The entire corner of Essex and Grand Streets reeks from it, yet always a great sight.  The workers operate under the strict Kosher supervision of Rabbi Shmuel Fishelis.

Patrons walk into a small space filled with barrels containing a wide variety of pickled foods, and the smell of vinegar is everywhere.  Customers can choose from huge variety of pickled vegetables and specialty items, Kaufman says. Pickle varieties include full sour, three-quarters sour, half sour, new, and hot. Pickled tomatoes, plum and cherry tomatoes, whole green olives, black olives, stuffed olives, mushrooms, pickled celery, hot peppers, sweet kraut, sauerkraut, Schwartz’s herring, sun-dried tomatoes, horseradish. and many more products round out the selection. “It’s not just pickles anymore,” Alan Kaufman said.

“The Pickle Guys", a short film by Richie Siegel, explores the transformation of the Lower East Side, especially the original merchants still remaining, including of course, The Pickle Guys.