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The Pickle Landscape of the Lower East Side

Written and photographed by Christine Galanti

“I’ve got to get some of those pickles,” my mom made sure to tell me recently while making plans to visit the city for the day. Pickles, my mom says, are the only food she really craves. And she’s not talking about anything from a jar at the supermarket.

Growing up in New York City with her Jewish relatives, my mother was introduced to sour pickles at an early age via pastrami mecca Katz’s Delicatessen (of When Harry Met Sally fame). She enthusiastically recalls from childhood the taste of pastrami on rye with mustard, a pickle, and a Doctor Brown’s cream (or the occasional Cel-Ray celery-flavored) soda. Naturally, we needed to get her pickles on the Lower East Side.

Lower East Side pickles
In 1904, my grandfather was born on E. 3rd St. at Second Avenue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (What’s known today as the East Village used to be part of the Lower East Side neighborhood: according to The Villager, the name change was a real estate marketing ploy in the 1960s to disassociate the neighborhood from its immigrant past and make it more attractive to the bohemian and artist types flocking from Greenwich Village to the west.) Today, that location houses the bar Whiskey Town. Like my mom, my grandfather was routinely treated to Katz’s since he was a kid at its original location on Ludlow St., which opened in 1888.

We made a quick stop at Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery and picked up a few half-sours (my preference and their only option). Half-sour pickles are brighter green in color, mildly salty, and cured in brine for only a few days. Next, we headed to Pickle Guys on Essex St., formerly the home of multiple pickle vendors. Pickle Guys is now the last one standing.

Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery
In addition to a range of pickles from olive green full sours to spring green new pickles, the Pickle Guys storefront is filled with an array of herbed sun-dried tomatoes and a variety of pickled fruits and vegetables including mango, pineapple, celery, and baby carrots. My mom was quick to declare the taste of Pickle Guys’ full-sour authentic and sing its praises. (Full-sour pickles are brined for a few weeks and have a much saltier taste than half-sours.)

Pickle Guys, Lower East Side
Finally, we stepped into Katz’s. Some things had changed significantly since my mom was a kid. She described everyone who used to work at Katz’s as “a really old Jewish gentleman,” quite different from today’s young staffers. She remembers the neighborhood being in decline, and her grandmother’s horror when her father would bring her and her sister there. It’s a far cry from the gentrified, trendy LES of today.

On a Sunday afternoon, the lines move quickly despite the weekend chaos. Katz’s is still as crowded, loud, and crazy as my mom remembers it from her childhood: “It was the most exciting, fun place to go, being immersed in this wonderful, raucous scene.” Foregoing sandwiches, we’re out the door in a few minutes with a bunch of my mom’s beloved full-sours wrapped in paper.

Like the atmosphere, the taste thankfully has not changed one bit.

Christine_GalantiChristine Galanti is a kangaroo-cooking, five-dollar-Polish-dinner-hunting, baby-octopus loving freelance writer in New York.

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