A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

SMELL: United Pickle factory

The other day a companion and I sat down on the red-leather stools at the counter of Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop, the 1929 diner in the Flatiron District. He ordered a vanilla milkshake and I asked for pickles, which arrived sliced in half in a brown melamine dish. They tasted just the way a New York pickle should taste: firm, rubbery, squeaky outer flesh giving way to a slightly seedy, slushy, salty inside. There was a snipping sound to each bite and a garlicky sting in the crunch.

A month earlier, in search of the roots of this iconic New York City food, I'd visited United Pickle, a fourth-generation family pickle factory in the Tremont section of the Bronx, founded in 1897 "with a horse and wagon." United also owns the trademark brand Guss' Pickles, one of the Lower East Side sidewalk-barrel vendors of the early twentieth century, featured in the film Crossing Delancey and on countless walking tours through the 1990s. Most important, however, United holds the rights to Guss' secret thirteen-spice recipe, passed down over more than a century.
Image courtesy of United Pickle
United's owner, Stephen Leibowitz, is undeniably a pickle man. He claims he was born in a pickle barrel to a pickle family, and that pickle juice runs through his veins. His business card reads "Chief Pickle Maven," and as he strides toward me across the brine-soaked factory floor he announces his arrival with "Here he is: the Big Pickle himself."

The factory smells tangy and prickly: like garlic, brine, dill, and spices, evoking the sawdust and chrome of old-school New York City delis like Eisenberg's. People think that milk and pickles don't mix, but the building used to be a Borden milk factory; today brine rather than milk drenches the historic cobblestone floors.

Walk into the factory, on a desolate stretch of northern Park Avenue, and the first thing you'll notice is cucumbers: in buckets, in bushels, on pallets, spilling out of boxes. The factory goes through about eighteen million pounds of cucumbers per year, spends $150,000 year on water (for brine and washing), and uses three trailers a week of salt.

Here's how you transform a cucumber into a pickle spear like the ones I ate that afternoon at Eisenberg's (Eisenberg's pickles, however, are made by Mr. Pickle, not United). Using a forklift, hoist a forty-bushel box of cucumbers and dump it out onto the conveyor belt.

Sort through the cucumbers and pick out the ones that are crooked or less than 4 inches long: these will get made into chips or relish.

Shuttle the cucumbers into a "shuffler," which corals the mass of slippery vegetables into orderly rows to be fed into the slicer.

Each pickle shoots along the slot in a blur, like a rocketing green torpedo,

blasts through the slicer, which quarters it, and is launched into a plastic tub, which curbs the momentum. It drops through a hole onto a conveyor belt below.

It rides up the belt with hundreds of other spears, where someone picks out any broken or otherwise errant pieces. All Guss' pickle spears are uniform.

Steve presents a perfect specimen.

The spears drop into a bucket. A worker squirts brine from huge vats into the bucket through a hose, and the buckets are capped by a machine to ensure a tight seal.

A point of pride of United Pickles is the meticulous count: Steve guarantees 270 to 300 spears per bucket, give or take 10 percent.

To this end, every fifteen minutes, for twelve hours a day, a worker counts the pickles in a randomly selected barrel while a coworker watches. 

When I stepped up to the cash register to pay for our snack, the cashier charged me only for the milkshake. "The pickles are always free here," she said. Eisenberg's owner, Josh Konecky, as tall and barrel-shaped as a pickle himself, smiled at us and said, "What's a milkshake without pickles? What's Eisenberg's without pickles?" And indeed, what's New York City without pickles?

1 comment:

will said...

thx. i love pickles, and i love this report about pickles and pickling.