Remembering neighborhood pickle barrels of 1950s Brooklyn

November 27, 2020 William A. Gralnick
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The other day someone said he was in a pickle. I haven’t heard that expression in a long time. It was very popular when I was young.

For those of you who didn’t grow up in Brooklyn or have managed to get to whatever age you are and are not familiar with this expression, let me explain.

Pickle comes from the Dutch word “pekel.” That refers to “piquant” — sharp, spicy, salty. To be in a pickle referred to being jammed up like the cucumbers and other veggies stuffed in pickling jars. Let us remember that Brooklyn and much of NY was Dutch, commanded by the Dutch Trading Company and the never-to-be-forgotten Peter Stuyvesant. Such an expression was, so to speak, right at home.

But surely you must know I’m not writing this to educate you in Dutch/English idioms. Of course not. We’re talking here about the once-ubiquitous “nickel pickle,” so-called because any one of them in the barrel was a nickel. If one were to look at enough of Kaufman’s pictures of lower Manhattan, one would see dark, wooden, probably 25- or 50-gallon barrels with matching wooden lids on them.

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Inside, depending on the hour of the day, the barrel was packed with really big, really fat pickles. You knew what taste you were going to get from the color of the pickle. Light green was dill, half and half was exactly that — half and half.

For me it was the darkest green I could find. These were the sours, so sour that sometimes your face puckered all on its own, the brine twisting up the face muscles into a cartoonish expression. What kind of expression? Of a man eating a sour pickle.

The oddity of lower Manhattan’s pickle bazaars was that the barrels were everywhere. One expected them in front of the deli, in front of the market, maybe in front of the butcher or grocery, but in front the yarn shop, the notions store, the drug store? It was a cheap product to make and you never knew when the yen would hit someone — just a way to add a few bucks to the till by the end of the week.

By the time I was old enough to reach into the barrel myself, grab my own pickle, and pay with my own money, pickle barrels were a dying breed in Flatbush. There was one in my neighborhood, maybe two. The one I vaguely remember was in Bohack’s. The one I definitely remember was across from P.S. 217, my elementary school.

It stood, beckoning us upper graders at lunch hour, or after school. It stood, seemingly chest puffed out, in front of the Irish deli, of all places. This deli had another enticer: they made their own potato chips. I’m probably taking statins because of the oils the chips were cooked in, dropped still dripping into the white paper bag which was soon soaked through with oil. To this day I’ve never tasted a better chip.

I’m from the school of eaters whose students don’t much care what foods go together. I figure they’re all gonna end up in the same place, so why not start their journey at pretty much the same time? Thus, it wasn’t unusual to walk away with a sour pickle and a bag of potato chips and ingest likely a year’s recommended amount of salt in about 10 minutes.

The barrel came to a sad end. Coney Island Avenue was an ethnic divide. If you lived between it and Ocean Parkway you were likely Irish, Catholic, an apartment dweller, and less wealthy than those who lived between Coney Island Avenue and Flatbush Avenue or Nostrand Avenue. The guys who lived on the side where the barrel was became pretty territorial about it. Fights were not uncommon if we interlopers decided our desire was stronger than our fear. Finally, the owner decided that the barrel didn’t produce enough money to pay for the aggravation.

It isn’t that the pickle, and I don’t mean the ones in jars, is gone forever. Any good deli that has Jewish roots is where to find them. Sometimes even before they throw the silverware at you comes a bowl of pickles. It is a small bowl, sometimes holding slices, not whole pickles, but if it’s a good deli the bowl is like the horn of plenty. A nice waiter or waitress might even accede to your wish that your bowl have only sour pickles.

Many places will rachet up that salt quota by providing sour kraut, even though now you’re at an age when you shouldn’t even look at that stuff, no less eat it. But as one friend said to me, “If I gotta go, let it be with a sour pickle in my mouth.” A little extreme, but you get the point.

Fair and flea markets are another place one occasionally finds that big barrel with all the brine-coated memories in it, but it came with a reality. The nickel pickle has become a neighborhood memory. And now they cost about a buck when you can find them.

Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.

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  1. The demise of the pickle barrel was soon followed by the demise of the “Knish Man”. It seems every school in Brooklyn had a Knish Man standing in front. Ours was Ruby the Knish Man. My cousin in a different school, also had a Ruby, and my friend in another school also had a Ruby.
    Either Ruby was a traveling knishman, or Ruby franchised his name….go know.