“There’s something in the air that makes people want to make pickles,” said Joya Carlton, 28, one of three partners in Brooklyn Brine, a local pickle start-up, sitting in a booth at the Greenpoint Coffee House with her two partners, Shamus Jones, 29, and Josh Egnew, 34, both covered in tattoos.
“We’re getting requests from Philly, Atlanta, California … a Japanese magazine wants to do something on us,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s like, ‘Whooaaa!”
“Working at the markets, people come up to us constantly and they’re like, ‘I’ve been pickling all summer!’ asking questions, wanting to learn,” Mr. Egnew said.
Brooklyn Brine currently produces 3,000 jars a week of inventive products such as pickled curried squash and pickled smoked carrots to sell at local specialty shops like the Bedford Cheese Shop, Urban Rustic, the Greene Grape, and the Park Slope Food Co-Op. (Mr. Jones: “We can’t keep them on the shelves.” Ms. Carlton: “Those people are animals!”) They recently inked a distribution deal that will spread their pickles to 70-odd new stores throughout New England, and may be at Whole Foods soon. Meanwhile, they’ve been inundated with requests from friends who want to help with their canning process, which takes place from 12:30 to about 6:30 a.m. five nights a week in the kitchen of Brooklyn Label, a Greenpoint restaurant. The company, started in August after Mr. Jones was laid off from his job as a chef, is sharing shelf space with a surge of independent labels that include McClure’s, Wheelhouse Pickles and Rick’s Picks.
Ms. Carlton, who was also laid off (from a job in book publishing), suggested that the rise of pickling has corresponded to the rise of unemployment. “There’s this feeling, an instinctual feeling, almost, even for people who didn’t have a mom that pickled,” she said. “It’s almost like we’re talking about a need to save up for the winter.”
‘It’s a political act.’ —Preservation expert Eugenia Bone
Formerly the province of grandmothers, and, in New York, the Lower East Side, pickling is experiencing a youthful Renaissance. Jars of various vegetables in liquid are now ubiquitous at greenmarkets and flea markets, in kitchen stores, at butcher shops, sandwich shops and Williams Sonoma. It’s not just earnest, entrepreneurial young outfits like Brooklyn Brine but a resurgence of pickles on restaurant menus all over the city and a rash of amateur canners stuffing farmers’ market booty into Ball jars in their own cramped kitchens, consulting recipes on Epicurious.com or books like Eugenia Bone’s recent Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods. Pickling is not just a way to be eco- and cost-conscious. It’s almost a religion. “It’s not little Suzy Homemakers at all,” Ms. Bone said. “All the guys, they look like Pan!” (She was referring to the Greek god of mountain wilds, etc.)
THE NEW CUPCAKES?
“I WOULD SAY we’ve tripled our orders of pickles since we opened,” said Mercedez Singleton, manager of the year-old butcher Marlow & Daughters, who compared the current picklemania to that formerly directed at chocolate. “I made them a central display this summer. … I have vivid memories of running out of McClure’s and people having breakdowns over Fourth of July weekend.”
At the new restaurant Rye in Williamsburg, chef Cal Elliot is pickling “red pearl onions, cherries; I pickle ginger, watermelon rind, cornichons with little gherkins,” he said. Also: “pickled shrimp. We make our pickles once a week and we go through them so fast.” Over at Dirt Candy, a haute vegetarian joint in the East Village, Amanda Cohen is doing pickled eggplant in pasta, pickled shitakes in grits and kimchee donuts. Chef Marc Meyer of Five Points, Cookshop and Hundred Acres in Manhattan is pickling whole cherry peppers, cayenne peppers, sauerkraut, pumpkin and Chow Chow—a Chinese relish—as well as cucumbers, i.e., the traditional “bread-and-butter” pickle.
“A couple people have told me that pickles are the new cupcakes,” said Katy Tackett, a.k.a. the Pickle Freak, a Chelsea art gallery employee whose year-and-a-half-old blog chronicles her obsession with all things pickled. “But I don’t want to think about it that way. I hope that everyone is in it for the long haul.”
But of course, pickles have already made the long haul, a relic from a time when fresh produce wasn’t available year-round. Today’s pickle revolution is “the natural end of the locavore movement,” said Ms. Bone, referring to urbanites who raise chickens and plant tomatoes and track how far their food has traveled. “It’s a political act,” she added. “There’s a natural and healthy rebelliousness against corporate food culture.”
Indeed, when Mr. Jones of Brooklyn Brine recently found himself at a “townie truck stop” outside Ithaca, he noticed one of his more commercial competitor’s pickles in the fridge and decided to check out their ingredients. “It said high-fructose corn syrup as like the first ingredient,” he said with disgust. “Three ingredients down was more corn syrup. Then there was all these other ingredients ending in “–ide,” which means it’s a chemical which helps keep it crisp. And no spices, nothing.”
If Brooklyn Brine, what with their Moroccan spiced brines and willingness to pickle any vegetable that’s in season, represents the creative avant-garde of pickling, then Bob McClure, 30, of McClure’s Pickles, is its affable historian. He grew up pickling in Michigan under the watchful eye of his grandfather and started his company with his parents and brother Joe. Most of the actual pickling is done in Michigan, where things are cheaper, but Mr. McClure does recipe development and mustard out of a shared industrial kitchen space off Atlantic Avenue, which he finds to be a hotbed of creative culinary energy. “What I love about producing in Brooklyn is that nowhere else can I go and work alongside a vendor like Fine & Raw Chocolates and say, ‘Hey, Daniel, I’d like to put some of my mustard in your chocolate, can we try it?’”
‘DILL WITH IT’
MR. MCCLURE, a comedian and writer by day, conducts twice-monthly pickling classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen to teach amateurs his craft. On a recent Monday, during a well-attended discussion of the optimal time to eat pickled vegetables—one week after canning, said Mr. McClure—one student observed that Mr. McClure’s pickles still tasted delicious after a whole year.
The master’s toned biceps protruded from his T-shirt as he reached for his canning tongs and began an explanation of “the equipment you’re gonna need in your kitchen so you can go forth and make pickles.” The group peppered him with questions: “What’s the difference between pickling salt and kosher salt?”; “Can you can fermented cole slaw?”; “Are there any vegetables you should not can or pickle?” He explained that sterilizing the jar and adding the right amount of vinegar to the brine eliminates the dreaded possibility of death by pickle, or botulism, “a spore found on vegetables that can be activated under certain conditions and temperatures” like those found in a jar. “A lot of fear that comes out of canning is that you don’t know what’s in that sealed jar,” he admitted. “Do I open it? Do I eat it? I’m kind of freaked out.”
Mr. McClure mostly sticks to “classic” cucumbers in spicy and garlic dill varieties, pleasantly stiff and crunchy and packed in crystal-clear brine. Many of his admirers appreciate his throwback vibe. “I’m from the South, so every summer I can remember making homemade pickles with my mother or grandmother or visiting friends whose grandmothers had an entire room on their house just for canning,” said Ms. Tackett, of PickleFreak.com, who started canning her own vegetables recently after taking one of Mr. McClure’s classes. “I eat so many pickles myself that I’ve realized it’s easier for me to make them myself. It was becoming an expensive habit” (jars of Brooklyn Brine and McClure’s can run from $8 to $12 each).
Other pickle enthusiasts are just foodies with time on their hands, or, as Mr. McClure called them, “people in our age range who are totally overeducated and don’t have necessarily a lot of money to do stuff with, or they’re bored with their jobs and want to do something different, so they’re being resourceful.” One amateur canner, Lydia Reynolds, 26, of Williamsburg, said she had recently been experimenting “with all kinds of wacky stuff” like peppers and Sriracha. “Okra was gross,” she said. But others were successful: “People seemed to like them.” (Ms. Reynolds has a tattoo of a small dill pickle overlaid with the words ‘Dill With It’.)
“I get asked all the time, ‘Is this a fad?’” Mr. McClure said. “I don’t think it’s a fad. For me, it’s a way of life.”
But Ms. Singleton, of Marlow & Daughters, was uncertain as to whether we’d all still be effusive about pickles come spring. “Food trends, who can call them,” she said. “It seems like bread is on the rise.”
Back at the Greenpoint Coffee House, sliding a purple jar of pickled “fennel beets” around the table—each jar was affixed with the company’s tattoolike label—Mr. Jones predicted an interminable rise for picklemania. “We have bigger plans that I think are very tangible,” he said. “Think about the nickel pickle on Delancey. What’s traditional for New York. Go and get a pickle, no commitment. This isn’t something we’re just going to go and sell to Pepsi.”