The festival is called Picklesburgh, and it’s the kind of thing that could only happen here in Pittsburgh, a city with landmarks named after a manufacturer of sweet relish and kosher dills and, more famously, ketchup. But “Ketchupsburgh” doesn’t have quite as nice a ring to it.
So for two days last week, the hometown of Heinz celebrated all things brined and fermented, with tents hawking pickled egg rolls and pickled funnel cake and pickles on a stick. Picklesburgh exalted one of the most pervasive food trends of the past few years, in the city that has been proudly branded by the company that predates it. Many of the picklemakers selling their wares at the festival were overshadowed by Heinz — literally. The brand floated a 35-foot-long inflatable pickle, perfectly framed over the festival by the towers of one of Pittsburgh’s golden bridges.
“Our Steelers play at Heinz Field. You see concerts at Heinz Hall,” said Jeremy Waldrup, president and chief executive of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “I think in a lot of ways, Heinz is more than a brand to Pittsburgh.”
The brand picked Picklesburgh as the occasion to debut its first new pickle flavors in more than 50 years. Guided by “a great trend of consumer exploration in new flavors,” Heinz brand director Jessica Ryan said, the company unveiled two flavors that are more fanciful than their longtime line: sweet-and-spicy chips and spicy garlic chips. “Spicy always rises to the top,” Ryan said.
But which spicy? “Vote for what matters: pickles!” called out a volunteer in an election-year tie-in — hey, John Heinz was a U.S. senator, after all. Visitors snapped up Heinz swag (pickle pins, shirts that said “I’m workin’ for a Gherkin”) and free samples of the new pickles, brined with crushed red pepper. The new flavors are already in stores in Pittsburgh and will be rolling out in other markets later this summer.
What Heinz is trying to capture with the new flavors is a piece of that pickle nostalgia that comes from young people’s recent rediscovery of all things artisanal, craft and homemade. Pickles conjure up a certain manic-pixie-dreamgirl Portlandia vision of our modern era, in which Mason jars are both fermentation tools and charming wedding accessories that find their place in a homestead filled with flannel, calico and ironic taxidermy.
“It’s a nostalgia thing,” said Joe Bucco, sous chef and “pickle enthusiast” at Sienna Mercato, a local restaurant selling $4 cups of pickled lemonade. “Even people who are younger have that old-school mentality.”
As the urban millennial interest in pickling began to crest, so, too, did Pittsburgh’s popularity as an East Coast alternative to Portland and Austin — a place with a low cost of living and meat-and-potatoes, blue-collar authenticity where a person could be an artist and grow a lumberjack beard. (Full disclosure: It is my hometown.)
Okay, so there was a stuffed groundhog and an animal skull at the booth for Pizza Boat, a mobile pizza oven serving mini pies topped with pickled beets. But for every cool 20-something in wood-frame glasses, there were as many yinzers — Pittsburgh’s affectionate name for its born-and-bred, sports-loving citizens. And if you looked past the hipsters and the yinzers, you’d land at the booth for Byler’s Relish House, where Mennonite women in bonnets and long dresses — in the sweltering heat — doled out spoonfuls of elderberry jam and corn relish behind a sign that read “In God we trust.” Martha Byler makes the company’s pickles according to her grandmother’s recipe.
“I think she would be surprised” to see her pickles being sold beneath a giant inflatable pickle, Byler said of her grandmother. “I think she would be happy.”
Byler’s booth served as a visual reminder that before homemade pickles were an appetizer at that cool new farm-to-table restaurant, they were a way for people to preserve food through the winter. Pickles “speak to the ethnic, cultural history of Pittsburgh, as a melting pot for Eastern European ethnic communities,” said Waldrup. Both its old ethnic communities and its new ones — Gosia’s Pierogies sold kimchi pierogi, a solo entry in the rare-to-nonexistent Polish-Korean fusion food genre.
They get their kimchi from chef Greg Andrews, who, a few tents down, led a demonstration of his technique for an audience of home picklers. He put the dish in terms the city of Heinz could appreciate: “It’s called Korean ketchup, because it goes with everything in Korean food.” (Koreans might disagree.)
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Andrews sells preserves through his company, The Pickled Chef, “which is ironic because I’m neither a drinker, nor do I like pickles,” Andrews said. “I like fermented items, but if you put a dill pickle in front of me, I’m going to pass.”
People were passing on ceramicist Miki Palchick’s handmade fermentation crocks. She had sold only a few, though her pickle weights — ceramic disks that keep home picklers’ veggies weighted down in the jar — were more popular. “I think people come more to eat,” she said, before pointing out a cookbook, “Ferment Your Vegetables,” by her friend Amanda Feifer, who runs a pickling blog called Phickle. As in, Philadelphia pickles. We may as well just call the state Picklesvania.
Pickles also provided a chance for chefs to get creative, for better or worse. Dill pickle ice cream, sweet and herbaceous, was a big draw at a booth for Family Farm Creameries. They also offered a smoked salmon and caper ice cream, but “it’s not selling well, so let’s not talk about that,” said Megan Whitmer, a manager with the dairy collective. At another booth, “pickle boats” took hollowed-out pickles and crammed them full of pizza toppings. Some pickled foods go in and out of style, but fried dill pickles are eternal.
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Pickles are “kind of salty and sweet — just like us Pittsburghers,” said Stephanie Liput, behind the booth at the Pittsburgh Pickle Co., which makes its three varieties in the basement of a United Methodist church. Their logo, spotted on the T-shirt of owner John Patterson, is “Blood, sweat and spears.” (“I know, blood and food, but whatever, it just rolls off the tongue,” said Patterson.)
And Pittsburgh is, according to T-shirts sold at the festival, “a really big dill.”
But back at the Heinz booth, a question had stumped one Heinz volunteer: Where are the pickles made?
She grimaced. “I don’t know, actually.” She turned to another volunteer: “Where are the pickles made?”
He replied: “They’re actually made in Holland, Michigan.”