March 15, 2016

SUSSER | Are You Going to Eat That Pickle?

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On an unseasonably warm Wednesday morning, some friends and I sat on Collegetown Bagels’ patio, in true senior fashion, as I waited for a California Sunrise to be delivered to our table — the perfect start to, what was expected to be, a carefree and lazy weekday. As a senior, opportunities to engage in such free-spirited disregard of the humdrum, cyclical five-day week and two-day weekend are surely numbered. My friends were getting antsy, as I was the last to order in our group, and they had long finished their Zabs’ and assorted egg sandwiches. With relatively poor vision — and having forgotten my glasses at home — I avoided “people-watching,” the norm during such highly trafficked hours. Instead, I opted to fully engage with my table — an increasingly anxious and tense situation emerged as the CTB employees repeatedly scurried across the outdoor seating with everything but my guacamole infused meal. One by one, these so-called “friends” of mine unabashedly brought their compost-compatible plates to the garbage, hinting at an impending return to our Cook Street home. My Cali-Sunrise was nowhere to be seen. But, at the very moment I began to lose all hope of attaining any semblance of satiety that morning, and flirting with the idea of a quick trip to 7-11, I noticed something familiar, yet peculiar. A complementary vegetal treat, resting on a friend’s plate. Knowing this would contribute to the 30 to 40 percent of the total food supply that goes wasted in the U.S., I spoke up — “are you going to eat that pickle?”

While pickles have been around for thousands of years (the first recorded pickle was linked to Ancient Mesopotamia in 2400 B.C.) and have cultural implications elsewhere (in Fiji, pickles are a part of the courting process), they have a strong New York identity. Many are aware of the scores of fresh-faced immigrants in lower Manhattan, with unapologetically heavy Eastern-European accents, who made a living off such mobile and easily produced foodstuff. Poor tenement dwellers enjoyed the fresh taste of the pickle and, as is often the case with food and smell, the pickles were strong nostalgic devices, bringing them back, so to speak, to their home countries. The Pushcarts and various pickle institutions began to dwindle over the years. Gus’s Pickles, arguably the most esteemed storefront of them all, closed up their Lower East Side shop in 2002, and are now producing pickles at a much larger scale in a Bronx factory.

That is not to say that pickles do not still remain a widely appreciated treat. They are still very “New York.” The intensity of the sourness, the bruised bumpy exterior, the audible crunch — all in line with the grit and ferocity of the city that never sleeps. United Pickles, the aforementioned New York producer put it best: “Mention pickles in a conversation and talk naturally turns to New York City.” Stephen Leibowitz, the owner of United Pickles now finds himself in a niche market, wholly unique from the dime-a-dozen pickle businesses at the turn of the 20th century. He is the kind of guy who likely comes prepared to interviews with an arsenal of corny pickle jokes ready to go. “If you’re in a pickle, call United Pickle,” he says. It sounds like a late-night infomercial, but it’s got a ring to it. In case you were wondering, the origins of the idiom “in a pickle” are murky, yet some have attributed the phrase to Shakespeare.

Few foods in today’s day-in-age come with as much personality as the pickle. They are elusive and slippery, funny and phallic. Even just saying the word pickle is funny. Heavily processed food with ambiguous origins provides a sense of unease for the end-user. Where did this meat come from? Is this really chicken, or does it just taste like it? I can’t believe it’s not butter! But the pickle, particularly from factories such as United Pickle, provides a sense of authenticity and nostalgia, a taste of older and simpler times. Sure, there was rampant poverty, living conditions that make College Ave look like Park Ave and polio — but way back when, for just a nickel, you could walk up to a guy in the street and buy the best damned pickle in the country.

Much of the history of the pickle has been passed down generations, with little formal recording of the nature of its cultural relevance — quite different than the mountain of information that comes with the study of wines. And as I currently sit to prepare for a Wines midterm, I can’t help but reflect upon the interconnected nature of food and culture. Even something as seemingly mundane and ridiculous as a pickle can be studied and appreciated for its place in history. To put it even more broadly, oftentimes, the most interesting stories are those that aren’t always being told. A cognizance and proclivity of such overlooked information will be quirky, but it will also certainly not be trite.

Philip Susser is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.