Last Sunday on the Lower East Side, Orchard Street looked almost unrecognizable. For one day, the street had been overtaken by pickle stans — devotees of the vinegar-laced food who’d come out in full force for New York’s annual Pickle Day, the longest running celebration of pickles at 19 years old.
This year, a long line started forming at noon, right in the direction of pickle institution Guss’, which was serving complimentary pickles. The celebratory atmosphere and plethora of green and pickle-themed clothing gave the festival the air of St. Patrick’s Day. A woman dressed in Grinch-green from her hair to her face paint to her blazer pranced up to unsuspecting festival-goers, saying “Open your mouth and close your eyes, the pickle fairy has a surprise!” and plopping an entire pickle into their gullet. One bro boasted that the long-sleeve Grillo’s t-shirt he wore is no longer in stock. A young superfan named Robin Weinstein eagerly showed off her polyester pickle costume and Pickle Rick socks, explaining that she dragged her mother all the way from Boston to be here.
“I’ve never felt more understood,” said attendee Kaitlin Peronto, who wore a shirt with a pickle holding a mug of beer.
With nearly 50 vendors, Pickle Day presented the opportunity to revel in the pickle, but also to expand one’s culinary horizons and behold the vastness of the pickle universe.
Vendors infused pickles into peanut butter ice cream and sweetened cold brew, used pickles to adorn cupcakes, and invited people to slurp brine out of an ice luge. They coated beef tacos with pickled watermelon pico de gallo and cooled oysters with spicy pickled ice. They stacked deep-fried pickle slices on a skewer like a Donald Judd sculpture, then suspended the skewer across a paper tray, over a puddle of honey mustard. For take-home pickles, the feast had jars of kimchi, tomatoes, ginger, and garlic brined with Indian spices, and DIY fermentation and pickling kits. And novelties like pickle ice cream were there too, splitting the pickle lovers.
“[Pickled ice cream] is a terrible idea,” said a purist named Megan, nauseated at the thought of eating anything other than a pickled cucumber. But others were more receptive. “It’s good ice cream,” said Amanda Wallace as she polished off a cup. “It’s like a sorbet, so it has a good texture and flavor.”
Still, the pickle in its traditional, cucumber-based form — like dill, kosher dill, new, sour, and bread & butter — remained the festival’s main event and beating heart. They were everywhere, dangling in plastic bags like goldfish, or brandished aloft for selfies, one on a stick, two on a stick. One man strode out of the festival cradling a large jar of pickles like it was the elixir of life.
“Pickles are delicious and fun,”said Scotlan Frayne, whose shirt featured the words “Pickles are magical” scrawled in rainbow font. “How could you be upset or angry at this festival? You’re literally saying the world ‘pickle’ all day.”
Scholars estimate that humans started preserving cucumbers with brine as early as 2400 BC, but these days, pickles are more popular than ever. A 2016 report projected 16 percent growth in the multibillion dollar global pickle market between 2015 and 2020, and a 2019 report projected another 18 percent over the next five years. Events dedicated to the pickle have cropped up in cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston, and rural areas of Michigan, North Carolina, and New York state.
But the oldest modern pickle fest is the one on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that’s historically the locus of pickles in part due to Guss’ and an era when pickle pushcarts roamed the neighborhood’s sidewalk. At one time, there were more than 300 pickle vendors, according to a representative from the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy.
Pickle Day has become a huge event. Lines extend from vendor tents to the other side of the street, impeding the already heavy flow of foot traffic. The festival teemed not only with adult humans, but dogs and small children. Bewildered Citi-bikers heading across Orchard slowed to a crawl and gingerly pedaled through the morass. The last few years, as many as 30,000 people have flocked to the neighborhood for the festival, and this year seemed no less crowded.
Celebrities like Questlove and Jason Mantzoukas also roamed the fest, but the most notable person at this year’s Pickle Day, both in terms of popularity and visibility, was easily the festival’s mascot, Mr. Pickle.
He stood in the middle of the intersection of Orchard and Rivington, outfitted in bright red Converse sneakers and a full-body Forest green pickle costume that threatened to engulf his rosy cheeks, aquamarine eyeshadow, and tawny goatee. Mr. Pickle’s handler pulled fans from a long, semi-orderly queue so that they could snap a quick photo with him.
“I’ve been doing this for five years,” Mr. Pickle declared. “I’m the most famous pickle in New York.”
Danny Schwartz is a New York-based journalist whose work has appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork.