What if I told you that there is a place where the streets are lined with pickles? Yes, pickles. Kosher, half-sour, gherkin, fried…you name it and it’s there. A place where children run around with pickle shaped stuffed-animals tucked under their arms and cool brine running down their smiling faces. A place where you can sample pickled strawberries, pickled hotdogs, pickled shrimp, and even pickle-flavored French macarons if you have the stomach for it. For some, it’s a nightmare, but for the rest, it’s pure, savory bliss. Now what if I told you, that for one day a year, this place really exists.
It’s true. This past Sunday was magical for many city-dwellers, as New York transformed from the Big Apple, to the Big Pickle. October 15, 2017, marked Pickle Day in the city, and the seventeenth annual Lower East Side Pickle Festival became a Mecca for pickle-enthusiasts. Boasting the title of the world’s largest pickle festival, there were 18 strictly pickle merchants in attendance out of a group of 50+ local food vendors, including fan favorites Pickle Me Pete, Brine Brothers, and Pickle Guys. An estimated 20,000 people showed up to sample their stock – a sizeable crowd for an event that spanned only three blocks and lasted for five hours. Pickle-themed games, face painting, photo-booths and home-pickling contests were just some of the activities to keep guests occupied when they weren’t chowing on some crunchy cukes.
The saliferous celebration took place along Orchard Street, in what used to be known as “The Bargain District” of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Lower East Side was once home to a large immigrant population, including a substantial Jewish community. Many could not speak English, so they turned to street peddling to make a living. As early as the 1860s, Orchard Street was lined with street vendors, selling their wares for cheap. Some of the most prominent products for sale back then were pickles, straight from the barrel. The rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side still feels like a throwback to another era, with regal brownstones speckling the narrow streets. Around the neighborhood, you can still hear numerous languages being spoken, but you’ll also find a fair share of hip cafés, serving up fancy lattes, far from bargains.
Lauren Margolis, a Pickle Day volunteer who works with the Lower East Side Partnership, the organization that sponsors the yearly event, knows her fair share about the history of pickles in the area. Fiddling with the seams of her green, Pickle Day Staff t-shirt, Margolis says that “Pickles are traditionally an Eastern European Jewish food, so they’ve been sold in the Lower East Side since those populations were coming through in the 19th century. For example, our longest standing pickle vendor is Pickle Guys. They’ve been selling pickles for decades in this neighborhood.”
Margolis is a 29-year-old food studies graduate from NYU, and has volunteered at Pickle Day for two years. She explains that the event is laborious to organize, but important to preserve the history of pickles in the city. Plus, the community loves it. She says that pickles are “traditionally a Jewish food staple, but now I think they’ve gone mainstream.” Looking at the massive crowd, she says, “It’s way bigger this year than last. By a lot. You can’t walk.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. From Delancey to Houston, not a single square inch of street was free from foot traffic from noon to 5 p.m. There was pushing, there was shoving, but there was also a sense of camaraderie, as swarms of people, connected by their love of pickles, lined up to sample the salty snack in every form.
Matt MacIntyre, a 29-year-old self-proclaimed pickle-enthusiast, originally from South Carolina, says he “stood in line for 25 minutes to get four pickles and a jar.” MacIntyre, a tanned man in a concert t-shirt, waves around his pickle-on-a-stick like a wizard with a wand. Many vendors sold these hand-held treats for $2. Back in the day, you could score them for a mere penny or two.
MacIntyre could be found chomping away on a side street with his friend, Brian Sheets, a 28-year-old man with a fluffy beard the same color as his flaming red ‘fro. Drips of brine were beaded through Sheets’ facial hair. “The lines are nuts,” exclaims Sheets, who had previously attended the 2015 festival with MacIntyre. “I was like ‘we should get fried pickles!’ but the line went down like half a block.”
You won’t find the street vendors complaining about the hike in Pickle Day participation. Peddlers were selling their products like they were the last pickles on earth. Harris Derner, the Co-President and Founder of Brine Brothers, whose specialty is “all-natural, drinkable brine,” proclaims that the festival was “a lot of fun but a lot of action.” Brine Brothers, who went live as a company this March, sells 750mL bottles of pickle-juice for $7, with three different flavor options, perfect for creative alcoholic beverages.
A River Edge, New Jersey native with a Jersey accent and swagger to match, Derner is a 31-year-old pickle purveyor with an eye for what grabs folk’s attention. For their first Pickle Day, Brine Brothers turned heads. They pulled up to the pickle party with a custom ice luge: a carved block of ice, engraved with the Brine Brothers logo, and a channel chiseled down the middle so liquid can be poured down and into an open mouth at the bottom.
Ice luges are typically found slicked with tequila at raunchy bars and Vegas pool parties, but this one fit right in at the family-friendly festival, where they offered shots of brine for just $1. “This is the first time we’ve done the ice luge and it was a huge hit. We thought it’d be a great way to interact with everyone other than just serving shots,” said Derner. He thought right. He added that the Brine Brothers boasted “a ton of bottle sales after the ice luges, and after the sample shots.” Looking toward the future, Derner was all smiles, saying, “We’ll be back next year, absolutely.”
MacIntyre and Sheets agreed. Asked if they’d be coming back in 2018 they replied, “Absolutely, 100%.” Despite the long lines and packed streets, it was rare not to see smirks on people’s faces, especially with pickles in hand. Then again, it’s hard not to grin when you can watch a giant pickle mascot dance to a sidewalk DJ whilst slurping brine from a bottle. If you couldn’t make it to this year’s festivities, keep your head up. Pickle Day 2018 is only a hop, skip, and a crunch away.