Today, pickle enthusiasts converge in their spiritual home — the Lower East Side — to celebrate the 15th annual Pickle Day. To mark the occasion, here are seven facts from New York City's pickled past.
1. New Yorkers and pickles go way back.
When the Dutch settled in the 1600s, New York became home to the largest concentration of picklers anywhere at the time. The majority of cukes were grown in modern-day Brooklyn, where the pickling tradition lives on.
2. Pickles are the deli version of palate-cleansing wine.
Most traditional New York delis (Katz's, Second Avenue Deli, and Eisenberg's) provide patrons with a dish of pickles on their table with their meal so they can cleanse their palates between bites of fatty meats like pastrami and corned beef.
3. Pickles weren't always considered healthy.
Late 19th-century New York City public health experts and social reformers noticed immigrants' penchant for garlicky and spicy foods, and hypothesized that strongly flavored foods resulted in nervous, unstable people. Public Health Enemy Number 1 was pickles, which experts thought were harmful to the body and the mind.
In Health in the Household, or Hygienic Cookery, an 1886 domestic science book, Susanna W. Dodds wrote:
There is nothing in a pickle to redeem it from hopeless condemnation. The spices in it are bad, the vinegar is a seething mass of rottenness, full of animalcule, and the poor little innocent cucumber, or other vegetable, if it had very little 'character' in the beginning, must now fall into the ranks of the 'totally depraved.'
4. Pickles are (partially) responsible for school lunch.
Around this time, schoolchildren on the Lower East Side would dash to nearby pickle peddling pushcarts during their lunch break — a practice that was at least partially behind the implementation of school lunch programs, as well as American cooking classes at settlement houses.
Jane Ziegelman, author of 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, wrote in a 2011 New York Times op-ed: "Pickles were seen — by a nation on its way to Prohibition — as a compulsion for those too young to drink alcohol. Some nutritional books of the period classified pickles as a 'stimulant,' along with coffee, tobacco, and whiskey."
5. Wars were fought over pickles.
Long story short, in the 2000s, there was controversy over who owned the name and recipes from famed pickle producer Guss', along with LES pickle territorial disputes. The New York Post wrote of the Great Pickle Wars, "This tale of betrayal, madness, jealousy, and rage makes 'King Lear' sound like a child's bedtime story." To learn more about this part of pickle history, read The Bowery Boys' Take on This Pickle Civil War.
6. Pickle brine was once called "The New York Mets' secret weapon."
According to a 1968 article in the New York Times, Nolan Ryan's record-holding 5,714-strikeout career is due at least partially to pickle juice. Times Sportswriter Joseph Durso wrote that "it is no longer classified information that the New York Mets' secret weapon is a jar of pickle brine." Mets trainer Gus Mauch instructed his pitching staff — particularly the rookie, Ryan — to soak their fingers in pickle brine when blisters formed where they gripped the ball at the seams.
7. Picklebacks were invented in — where else? — Brooklyn.
A pickleback shot — a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice — was allegedly invented by Brooklyn bartender Reggie Cunningham in 2006 when he was approached by a gold-toothed woman at the Bushwick Country Club and made to do a series of whiskey shots followed by brine.