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Greene: Proud Pickle History

11/04/11 5:55PM By Stephanie Greene
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When November rolls around, the high garden season is truly over.

Whatever embarrassment of riches we have enjoyed from our cucumber, tomato and squash patches is now safely jarred as relish and pickles - or lies discreetly in the compost pile.

You'd never think the history of these condiments could have been exciting or even controversial, but it was. The lowly pickle was not only an important player in immigrant diets at the turn of the twentieth century, it was also the means to solvency and entrepreneurship for many a new arrival. The Lower East Side of New York City was the neighborhood where waves of new immigrants settled.

Around the Civil War came the Germans, then the Irish, escaping the horrors of the potato famine. Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Hungarians, Italians and Russians crowded into what became, in 1900, the most heavily populated area in the country, with 2223 people in one square block, a teaming mix of enterprising newcomers chasing the American Dream. One of the easiest and best ways to get into some kind of business was to operate a pickle cart. Or, for that matter, even a basket. You needed almost no start up capital. The demand for product was great. A cart could be rented for ten cents a day. Filled before dawn with produce from the local markets or pickles made in tenement kitchens, it was then wheeled profitably around the neighborhood. Unlike the sweatshops, you could make your own hours, and most important for Jewish peddlers, observe the Sabbath.

A pickle could be had for a penny. It was a nutritious and quick snack for which people had real affection-or in some views, addiction. In her wonderful culinary history of a Lower East Side tenement, 97 Orchard, Jane Ziegelman describes the variety and number of pickles to be had in the streets. Not only were there cabbages pickled whole, eggplants, peppers, string beans and beets, cucumbers sour, half sour and salted; even apples were pickled.

To me, it sounds like pure bliss, but at the time, nervous social reformers, politicians and xenophobes fixated on the immigrant diet and were appalled. It was filled with too many highly spiced foods, which made newcomers too excitable and unstable to be good Americans. A proper diet should be bland, they preached: replace pickles and halvah with applesauce and creamed potatoes! In the years ramping up to Prohibition, there were even dieticians who labeled the pickle a dangerous stimulant, like alcohol, tobacco or caffeine.

Then, in 1924, The Johnson-Reed Act slowed immigration to a trickle, and American attention was turned away from the immigrant's plate. But in the way of all good food, pickles made inroads and were assimilated. Today, MacDonald's automatically serves your burger with a pickle; and more salsa is sold nationally than ketchup. Adventurous home picklers have vats of sauerkraut and kim chee fermenting away in their cellars.

Next on my list are Moroccan preserved lemons and Iraqi pickled turnips.
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