Blond and rather slender for its type, a pickle barrel stands by the takeout counter of the famous Washington, DC delicatessen Wagshal’s. Lined with plastic, it may satisfy a certain nostalgia but amounts to no more than a storage unit on the bulk-bin grocery aisle—a pale iteration of the big-bellied, oak casks I remember from my childhood.
For generations in America and Europe, such wooden workhorses were where the magic happened: the lacto-fermentation of cucumbers, i.e. old-school pickles. At full strength, one barrel could house hundreds of specimens as salt, clean water, spices and time joined forces to transform raw vegetables into bacteria-free, preserved food. Pickles stored in wooden barrels were prized for their flavor and their texture. The brine reacted with the cucumbers to kill harmful bacteria and extracted enough moisture to keep the resulting pickles crisp yet juicy. One unintentional benefit of these wooden pickle barrels was a kind of olfactory come-on. Their porous material emitted wondrous aromas science has identified as proven appetite stimulants. Folks would catch the waft—for example, along New York’s Lower East Side “Pickle Alley” in the 1930s—and come running.
Of course, the salt-involved preservation of food (and pickles in particular) has gone on for thousands of years. Mesopotamians did it in 2400 BCE. Pickling was also practiced in early Asia, ancient Greece and medieval Italy, with reputable sources citing aficionados as wide-ranging as Aristotle, Napoleon and Cleopatra, who credited pickles for her beauty. Some 350 years ago, the Dutch brought their pickling practices (including the use of salt, spices and vinegar) and old oak barrels to New York (then New Amsterdam) and planted small cucumbers where Brooklyn now thrives.
When Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in New York, they too were familiar with pickles. Their ancestors had fermented cucumbers, beets and cabbage for generations, relying on these preserved vegetables to get them through the winter and spice up their otherwise bland diets. The immigrants snapped up the cheap and plentiful cucumbers to process and sell on the streets. They peddled their pickles in pushcarts and, eventually, sold them in delis. At one time Essex Street—the heart of New York’s Jewish enclave—featured as many as 80 pickle merchants. Their most famous product was the kosher dill, a.k.a. the Jewish pickle. (A Jewish pickle is just one that includes raw garlic in the brining process.)
But food-safety regulations in the 1970s forever altered commercial pickle production in this country. The New York health department prohibited the use of wooden barrels because they could not be properly disinfected (between wooden seams) and were not airtight against outside pathogens. Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation deli man with Cordon Bleu training and co-owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, has a word for the officials’ work: narishkeit, Yiddish for “foolishness.” “I have never known anyone to get sick from them,” says Gruber, who grew up on the Lower East Side in the days of wooden barrels and stainless-steel bowls of pickles and tomatoes on deli tables.
For generations in America and Europe, wooden barrels were where the magic happened: the lacto-fermentation of cucumbers. At full strength, one barrel could house hundreds of specimens as salt, clean water, spices and time joined forces to transform raw vegetables into preserved food.
These days, most artisan pickles are cured in plastic buckets and barrels. Some say that hasn’t affected the quality of the product. Alan Kaufman of the Pickle Guys on Essex Street, a Queens native who has been fermenting pickles since 1981, says good flavor can develop in a plastic barrel, but a wooden one can yield pickles almost a week faster.
Wagshal’s proprietor Bill Fuchs recalls similar regulations that were introduced in Washington, DC in the mid-1990s. “We had to get rid of our original barrels,” he says. The “faux barrels,” as he calls them, don’t draw the same attention as the wooden ones.
Pickles’ popularity in modern-day America has waxed and waned. Fuchs sees less of an appetite for them these days. “Lots of people don’t even want them anymore,” he says of the one-sixth pickle spear customers receive wrapped in with their sandwich orders. One reason may be that the modern pickle universe has been populated with cucumbers that are not brined, but rather are vinegarized and pasteurized. The heat involved in the latter would kill the lactobacilli in a true fermented pickle. The process often comes at a cost—a less crunchy, less-than-stellar pickle. And certainly a far cry from what would have been drawn from a wooden barrel.