In A Pickle

Crossing-DelanceyIt is thanks to my treating myself to a repeat viewing of one of my favorite old movies (yes, it’s weird, but a movie released in 1988 is now considered old), that I was finally able to put my finger on why I do not yet feel a hundred percent settled here in California.

It’s the pickles.

As I was watching Sam “The Pickle Man” Posner (played by Peter Riegert) bare handedly fishing pickles out of the barrels while wooing Amy Irving’s Izzy Grossman in Crossing Delancey, it dawned on me that I have not eaten a decent pickle since moving to Palo Alto. Truth be told, I have hardly eaten any pickles in the last four years. I realize that this is probably good for controlling my sodium intake, but I also know that it means that I do not feel totally comfortable here.

After all, for me pickles – as they are for many other Jews -are comfort food. I don’t think it is by chance that Susan Sandler, who wrote both the play and the movie, put the Orthodox Sam in the pickle business. Given how Jews like to eat, the story just wouldn’t work as well with his owning a wholesale clothing store or religious book shop.

Look, I know that Jews don’t have proprietary ownership over pickles. Pickled fruits and vegetables (not to mention other kinds of things) are eaten all over the world by people of various cultures and cuisines. I would be so bold, however, as to say that although not every pickle is Jewish, just about every Jew likes a pickle…at least now and again.

I’ll admit that I have not gone out to look for a good pickle in the last few years, but the very fact that I have to actually go out looking for one says a lot. I never used to have to go on pickle hunts. They were always right there in front of me on the table, be it in my Bubbe’s kitchen, at the Pickle Barrel restaurant in Toronto, or at Artie’s Deli on the Upper West Side.

homemade pickles

Not exactly my Bubbe's pickles, but close enough.

I used to watch my Bubbe pickle cucumbers from my Zaida’s garden when I would visit them in the summers. I don’t recall my Bubbe’s recipe (probably because she didn’t really follow one), but I remember her adding lots of garlic and fresh dill, also grown in their garden, to the brine. The taste of those full sour pickles, along with my Bubbe’s borscht, and the trout my Zaida caught and Bubbe cooked, are among my most vivid memories of those long, hot months on the Canadian prairie.

A regular dinner destination for my family while I was growing up in Toronto was the Pickle Barrel restaurant, a family-oriented establishment that continued to serve pickles at every table despite its menu becoming more and more “nouvelle deli” as the years went on. The pickle barrel (literally) decor was replaced by whimsical 3D murals by artist Ian Leventhal, but there was never any doubt as to what kind of culinary establishment it was at its core.

beit hashita pickles canDuring my years spent in Israel, I came to appreciate Israeli pickles, which not only taste different but also look different from the pickles most of us are used to. The Middle Eastern version is made from small, thin cucumbers (not the fat, stubby Kirby variety) and pickled in pure brine – only salt water and no vinegar. To get my Israeli pickle fix, from time to time I will buy canned Beit Hashita ones, or the even tastier ones that come in a refrigerated plastic container made by Sabra, if I can find them.

It goes without saying that in New York you can’t throw a rock without hitting a good pickle. If we couldn’t make it down to the Lower East Side to the famed Guss’s to buy half sours (my favorite) directly out of their orange barrels right out on the sidewalk, then we could get some almost as good ones from vendors like PickleLicious or Dr. Pickle who had stands at the ubiquitous street fairs every spring and fall in our neighborhood. And there was always the option of gorging on pickled cucumbers and tomatoes at Artie’s before our pastrami sandwich was served, inevitably resulting in our having to bring half of the smoked meat monstrosity home in a doggie bag.

Guss's with horseradish

Guss's. Right before Passover you could get fresh ground horseradish along with your pickles.

In some ways, I am glad that I left New York before the brine hit the fan by way of a major dispute over the rights to the Guss’s Pickles name, and the eventual departure of (one of the now two) Guss’s from the Lower East Side for Brooklyn. This way, Guss’s will always be able to be found on Orchard St. near the corner of Broome as it lives on in my memory.

And what makes a kosher dill kosher? It doesn’t hurt for it to be produced under Rabbinic hashgacha, but technically speaking it just has to be pickled with plenty of garlic, the way Jewish immigrants to New York, as well as my Bubbe who lived thousands of miles away, did.

So, at this point you are probably thinking that if I want to have pickles the way I like and remember them, then I should get to work making some myself. You are probably right. I should stop kvetching and start pickling, so that I can get to what I really miss and want. The crunching and tasting.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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