The Pickle Festival and trans-oceanic linkage

17 09 2007

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For Brooklyn’s Alana Hauck-Lawson, each time she grinds cabbage into the salt water (1 cup of salt, water as needed), it winds time back. The process, one of the myriad forms of pickling, results in Kapusta, the same dish that her grandmother ate during winters in Poland in the 20th century’s formative years. Her grandmother, then a child, would help churn the cabbage in a barrel into the brackish solution, which would preserve it for the hostile winter. Occasionally, a ‘freshly bathed, barefoot child’ would be placed in the barrel to tamp down the concoction.

Hauck-Lawson’s mother, Annie, who works as an instructor Brooklyn College, was on hand on Sunday to re-create the process for us, sans infant. The final result is something that’s  more or less sauerkraut. But her purpose wasn’t entirely culinary. It was to teach and tell stories, her mother by her side, of how the process of pickling crossed the ocean and still links us to our past — the same as the other two dozen participants in the Lower East Side’s 6th Annual Pickle Festival.

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In a neighborhood once crammed with people with European dirt still in their clothes, Sunday provided a chance for memory — real or imagined — and an opportunity to follow those strings back to the ancestral towns. The Pickle Fest, through its celebration of all things very salty, provided those strings. Through pickled cucumbers, garlic, turnips, cabbage, peppers, herring, meat and other demi-delicacies, salt told stories.

For many like Alana, pickling is a way of re-tracing the lines, of following time in reverse. Back past Ellis Island and the Statue, back over the Atlantic, shallow then deeper then deeper still then finally shallow again with pilgrims shuddering in shawls unsuited for North Atlantic air, then back to the European shores and down the ramp back into the tear-touched hugs from family members never to be seen again, back to the ride to the docks where ambition and the intoxicating vapors of possibility trampeled the downward pulls of reality, back to the village and the familiar house, the knowing faces and the embracing traditions — the other end of the string that links residents of the New World to the Old.

The LES, whose turn-of-the-century tenements made the area the most densely packed neighborhood in the world, has experienced the same demographic shift that nearly every immigrant sector of America has. Gentrification, with all of its many merits — a reduction of crime, revitalization of area economy, panini sandwiches — also brings with it touches of anonymity.

Artists tend to pave the way, using two criteria: 1 – Cheap rent; 2 – Relatively low chance of being knifed. Indirectly, they make the areas safer and hipper and the hordes always follow. It’s happened in South Boston, where recent, tight-walleted college grads have filtered into the streets once reserved, de facto if not de jurie, for Irish Catholics. It’s happened in parts of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco. It’s happened in almost every neighborhood in New York.

In poor areas, neighbors rely on each other for survival. It was safety in numbers before ‘safety in numbers’ became a perjorative way of talking about religion. When money enters the picture, we need smaller numbers — sometimes one suffices.

“You know, 20 years ago, everybody knew each other in this neighborhood,” said our butcher, Jeffrey, owner of the eponymous store in the Essex Street Market. “You couldn’t walk down the street without running into somebody you know. But now, with people who have money moving in, nobody knows each other anymore. It’s so anonymous.”

When gentrification — an inevitable thrust — rolls through, atomization follows. Said Huge Grant in About a Boy: “In my opinion, all men are islands. And what’s more, now’s the time to be one. This is an island age.” He eventually revises the theory in the film’s denoument, compromising with “Every man is an island. I stand by that. But clearly some men are island chains. Underneath, they are connected… ”

He’s onto something. We still need each other, just in different, less immediate ways. We just need to search for that connection. And if it comes floating in a salty solution, so be it — we’re lucky if it does.

Although sometimes you’ll have to stand in line for an hour to find that connection.

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(The line for full samples from The Pickle Guys)

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