I was easily lured into attending my first pickle festival. Promising a “dill-icious weekend,” Pittsburgh’s second annual pickle carnival — the too-aptly named Picklesburgh — seemed like the perfect venue to experience the Steel City. Simultaneously new and old, bougie and blue-collar, Picklesburgh looked like it would easily hit that sweet spot between self-aware and self-indulgent; flippant enough to be fun but genuine enough to have good food.
On the festival’s opening day, my co-worker cheerfully informed me that she hadn’t packed a lunch and was ready for overpriced vinegar-soaked vegetables, so I grabbed my wallet, shed the layers necessitated by the ever-present office air-conditioning and followed her to Picklesburgh.
I will freely and fully admit that I arrived in Pittsburgh, where I spent this past summer interning for a local newspaper, with a variety of preconceived notions. My opinion of the city had been predicated nearly entirely upon overhead shots taken by the Goodyear Blimp for primetime Steelers games. Pittsburgh, I thought, was the Steel City — a slightly decaying, rusty Midwestern masterpiece that was a few dozen years past its prime. It was old, tired hands and August Wilson plays and abandoned buildings that bore remnants of the great metallurgic industries that once supported the city.
Perhaps that’s the Pittsburgh of the 1980s and ’90s, the deindustrialized Pittsburgh that suffered such crippling population loss that churches were closed, neighborhoods at a time. But the Pittsburgh of the past and the Pittsburgh of the present are, if not polar opposites, then at least dichotomous.
That’s not to say that Pittsburgh is a shiny new city: Many appurtenances of the steel industry have yet to be repurposed, so the baked and crusty reminders of the city’s glory days dot neighborhoods like the Strip District and the South Side Flats. And although many of the younger professionals might deny it, there still exists major tension between the blue-collar industrial hub and the “modern forward-looking” city.
Complete with the requisite cringe-inducing puns, Picklesburgh captured this best of all, as the festival took place on the Rachel Carson Bridge, suspended between Pittsburgh’s North Shore and its downtown. Named after the famed naturalist and Pittsburgh native, the bridge is painted the same faded egg-yolk yellow as the Allegheny River bridges. (Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa can tell you more about the significance of the color.)
There’s a certain solidarity that comes from growing up in Pittsburgh, a lifelong attachment to a city and a people and their three professional sports organizations. At Picklesburgh, nearly everyone I saw was wearing black or gold or white shirts emblazoned with the Pirates’ P or the Steelers’ four diamonds or something celebrating the newly crowned Stanley Cup-champion Penguins. Although the ever-present team pride can be easily reduced to sports mania, I got the sense that sports are a synecdoche for something more important: Pittsburgh itself.
As my co-worker and I meandered along the double yellow line that normally separates north- and southbound traffic, I realized that, if it weren’t for the ubiquitous Heinz logo, the five white letters nestled inside the keystone shape that proudly declares its Pennsylvanian roots, I could perhaps believe I was walking in Brooklyn.
But Pittsburgh will never let you forget where you are. The first to adopt the moniker “City of Champions” — and the first to take umbrage at Boston’s appropriation of the phrase — Pittsburgh takes immense pride in its sons and daughters, its struggles and its triumphs.
These struggles are, to some extent, only just beginning. Though some steel mills have been supplanted with technology giants (notably Google and Uber, the latter of which is rolling out its self-driving cars in the city), Pittsburgh is currently facing a massive demographic stress test. Age-wise, the population disproportionately falls to the right of the bell curve: Today, less than 20 percent of residents are under 18, a figure that ranks among the lowest when compared to other major metropolitan areas. Of course, as Pittsburgh boasts the highest number of bars per capita, as well as a pleasingly low cost of living relative to quality of housing, the forecast is looking up.
But for now, Pittsburgh sits where the three rivers meet, shaken and yet proud of its past.
The two-lane bridge was just wide enough to fit the event. White cloth tents, their backs pressed up against the railings and suspension cables, arched over grills, brining instruments and tables of food. The air, already saturated with the moisture that accompanies a typical Midwest summer, had a slightly salty flavor that annealed every time a stiff breeze came off the river. My co-worker and I wove through the crowd, arms slightly held up in an effort to catch that breeze, and pretended we weren’t as sweaty as we actually were.
And then there was the food. Sold by the cup, jar or barrel, the Picklesburgh vendors hawked every type of pickled vegetable imaginable: cauliflower, carrot, pearl onions, garlic, radish, cabbage, zucchini, jalapeno. There were cucumbers pickled every which way, each with a suggested pairing. For the most part, the traditional dill pickles were forsaken in favor of chargrilled pickles (great with a Bloody Mary) or black-pepper-chip pickles (terrific alongside white cheeses, apparently). Equipped with a half-dozen toothpicks, I tried every single flavor of pickle in Cleveland-based artisanal pickle company Randy’s Pickles, stopping only when my mouth went numb from the vinegar.
Vegetables, I quickly discovered, were not the only type of food that can be improved with a nice soak in some salt water. I saw pickled funnel cake, picked chips, pickled peaches, pickled bacon tacos, picked strawberries and brine ice cream.
As the latter was a sickly green color that I associate only with expired marine animals, I elected to skip the emetic treat, choosing instead to down a cup of soupy red liquid called a “shrub.” The shrub, a vinegar-based syrupy liquid infused with sugar and pureed fruit, technically has the same acidity level as lemonade — at least according to its vendor — but burned significantly more going down. Though it left me gasping and with streaming eyes, I had to stop myself from going back for seconds.
The people manning the booths beckoned and called, cajoled and wheedled, passed out toothpicks and napkins and plates, blending in with one another as my co-worker and I reached the end of the bridge. With our lunch break ending and mouths burning, we decided to head back to the office rather than take one more pass through Picklesburgh.
Before we departed, I turned back toward the bridge. The black and white and yellow were less distinguishable under the blinding afternoon sun, but I knew they were still there.
“Pittsburgher” refers to a state of being, a permanent status, rather than simply a hometown. The city has a surfeit of pride, and after 10 weeks in Western Pennsylvania, I would never dare to say that pride is misplaced. At once vibrant and feeble, evolving and atavistic, Pittsburgh is the resolution of a million different contradictions. It’s not always pretty, but there’s beauty in the messes — in the jagged shards of glass, in the abandoned warehouses, in the crisscrossing lattice of bridges that should have been replaced decades ago — and that beauty is worth seeing.
And if you go — I’d suggest you try the pickles.