Few pickle emporiums remain in what used to be known as Manhattan's Old Pickle District. But Alan Kaufman's pickle emporium is a legend.
Few pickle emporiums remain in what used to be known as Manhattan's Old Pickle District. But Alan Kaufman's pickle emporium is a legend. iStockphoto.com
Residents of Manhattan's Lower East Side have always had strong feelings about pickles.
Every Tuesday, a truck pulls up to Alan Kaufman's pickle emporium — The Pickle Guys — and drops off thousands of cucumbers. Kaufman pours about 2,000 of them into a barrel to start. Tuesday is pickling day.
Kaufman opened his shop in 2000 in a neighborhood fondly known as the Old Pickle District. He learned to pickle with some of the old-timers before opening his own place. He described the contents of his shop and the pickling process.
"This is salt brine," says Kaufman, as he pours the liquid into a bucket. "The amount of time they sit in the water determines the kind of pickles they're going to be."
According to the New York Food Museum, pickling was a booming business in the early 1900s. For decades, there were about 200 pickle shops in the area. Today there are very few.
Pickles are important to people. Some get irate if the pickle's not perfect. They're either sour or not sour enough. They want it straight, they don't want it crooked. One can be very fussy when it comes to their pickles.
Kaufman is a jolly 50 years old with a neatly trimmed beard. His shirt has an image of a talking pickle that says, 'Smells great, tastes better!' His shop is filled with neat rows of dark red open barrels, all full of pickles.
"We sell sour pickles, three-quarter sour pickles, half sour pickles, new pickles, hot sour pickles, half hot sour pickles and horseradish pickles," Kaufman says. "And that's just the pickles."
Pickling is a delicate matter. Customers and picklers alike have their tendencies, and they're stubborn about them. Nancy Ralph, director of the New York Food Museum, sees the pickler in the pickle.
"It's an improvisational art," Ralph says. "So people experiment with different flavors and come up with their favorite flavors that sort of matches their own taste or the market they're trying to reach. And as a consequence, it takes on sort of the personality of the owner, so people create a product that tastes like who they are."
Alan Kaufman has rules, but they're simple.
- Don't put your hands in the barrels. He'll get the pickles for you with a big silver bowl.
- No napkins — use your sleeves.
- You get a pickle to eat while you wait, and you'll like it.
People seem to find the rules entertaining and come back for more. Len Zurling comes in to buy pickles for his mother. He loves the smell of the place.
"Sweet, sour, brine, salt," Zurling says. "What good is a steak or a hot dog without pickles? Everybody has their own taste. I like half sours, my mother loves sours."
Kaufman says that a great sandwich is only a good sandwich without a really great pickle.