Nestled beside our hamburger we have its snappy little sidekick, the pickle. Who transforms the commonplace, pimply cucumber into a briny delicacy, and what leads him into the pickle trade? Meet Alan Kaufman, age 48, who makes pickles on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His neighborhood used to feature lots of competition but is now a mix of fancy little dress shops and tenements with old Chinese ladies perched in spindly lounge chairs, gossiping in front of their buildings.
"I’ve been making pickles since 1981. I was a commercial advertising photographer, and my job and lifestyle meant I had a lot of free time; I could work two weeks and then not work for a month. My friend’s family had a pickle store, and I used to come down and work a couple of days a week for them, and then I started working Sundays and then holidays and … I enjoyed it! So, I closed up my photography business and I went straight into this.
"What I liked most of all, is it’s nice to be outdoors. And the fact that people like when they eat the product., that they say, “Wow, this is good!'
"Cucumbers we get from all up and down the eastern seaboard: Florida, Texas—I don’t know that Texas is the eastern seaboard, but that’s as far as we go—the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia. Certain times of the year we get from Michigan; the best cucumbers around are from Michigan. That’s when we make sour pickles, when we get Michigan cucumbers. They’re the best. And sour pickles are not only the best sellers, but they take the longest to make. It takes three months to make a sour pickle. So you need a real good cucumber to last three months.
"Take a large size cucumber or a smaller cucumber,the smaller cucumbers are always better. Actually, we don’t use cucumbers, we use kirbys. And smaller kirbys are always better. If you cut the cucumber in half, and you look inside, you see a lot of meat and very little seeds, and the seeds are very small. So that makes it tighter and and there’s going to be more crunch and more snap. When you buy a big cucumber, like you get in the supermarket, like for salads, you get very little meat and all moisture and big seeds. And when you pickle that, it’ll just get mushier and softer and soggier.
"The pickles themselves—news, halfs and three-quarters—are basically the same. It’s all saltwater, pickling spices and garlic and the amount of time they spend in the brine. Sour pickles we make a little differently: we use more salt in the beginning, to start them, ‘cause that’s what makes them last longer and stay crunchier. Also, we don’t put garlic in the sour pickles till the end. What happens is, the garlic will start to dissolve the skin; so if they sit there with the garlic for three or four months, it’ll start to eat away the skin, and become very thin-skinned. So we usually put the garlic in at the end.
"I grew up in Queens, in Rosedale, and I loved pickles when I was a kid. I used to eat them all the time. Every Saturday, my mom used to get a jar of pickled tomatoes, and as soon as she’d get them home, I’d start eating them.
"I have different things with different pickles: if I’m having a tunafish sandwich or a pastrami sandwich, I prefer a sour pickle. But when I’m having a hamburger, I prefer a half sour pickle. And if I just want to eat something when its hot outside, I grab a new pickle. I’m spoiled, that way.
Making pickles is very gratifying. It’s sort of like being an artist, when he paints something and he says, 'Wow, that really came out great' Well, I do the same thing: when somebody takes that pickle and he says, 'Wow that’s really good' I go, 'Thank you!'
"When I started here, there used to be one, two, three pickle stores on this block here, and across Delancey there were another two. There’s other pickle companies around now, but they don’t make pickles, they just buy and sell them. So I’m the only one left."