05 July 2007

The Guss, The Whole Guss, and Other Pickles

The battle for what's left of the Lower East Side's soul continues, rending new wounds in the City's heart.

According to a flurry of recent articles, the contretemps over who owns the right to call the contents of their brine-filled barrels Guss's Pickles continues to rage, with no conclusion in sight.

In her corner on Orchard Street, Patricia Fairhurst, who took over Guss's LES location—the place where most New Yorkers are used to finding the City's most famous kosher sours and half-sours—says she is the rightful possessor of Guss's good name. She bought the shop from the Baker family in 2004, along with the original recipes.

In his corner in, ahem, Cedarhurst, Long Island, Andrew Leibowitz claims he is the real heir to the legacy of Izzy Guss, who sold his store back in 1976 to the Bakers. He opened his LI concern with Tim Baker in 2002. Leibowitz's family owns United Pickle, a Bronx business that provided Guss's with its cucumbers for years.

Then, in 2005, Leibowitz started asserting that only they sold true Guss' pickles; told Fairhurst to stop selling under that name. Fairhurst sued Leibowitz. Fairhurst sued back. It's no coincidence that 2005 was the year that Fairhurst decided to stop buying Leibowitz pickles, and get her vegetables elsewhere. Then there's the fact that Tim Baker refutes Leibowitz's claim that the Guss legacy was bequeathed unto him. It's not a simple story.

Now, Fairhurst is waging war on Whole Foods, of all places, for carrying Leibowitz's pickles and calling them Guss's. Whole Foods is standing by the Cedarhurst store. (Me, I don't really have much faith in Whole Foods' takes on food authenticity.)

The Times also tells us that a third pickle business, The Pickle Guys, on Essex Street, is run by Alan Kaufman and other former employees of Guss’s Pickles. So, they've got a claim, too.

There's plenty in this saga to make you heave a heavy sigh, but the part that distresses me the most is that, whatever the outcome of these legal battles (a court date is set for July 16), the true Guss's pickles are already erased from history. With all the claims and counter-claims, and the convoluted and contradictory histories, how is the consumer ever to know for sure which pickle place is the historically true one. The court may side with Fairhurst, or with Leibowitz, but a nagging doubt in the collective New Yorker's brain will never be fully convinced. And that's too bad.

There's a positive way to look at the story, too, I suppose. Three stores, all in the New York area, all serious about pickle making. That's good, right? Well, it's not bad, anyway.

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