While the villages to the east and west have charming Main Streets, the small town of Greenlawn, sandwiched in between, has pickles. Dan stops by the annual Pickle Festival before diving into the story of Samuel Ballton, the formerly enslaved man who became Greenlawn’s Pickle King.
Dan meets some of Samuel’s descendants as they celebrate the recognition he’s started to receive, and hears how learning about his story has affected them.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, and Jared O'Connell, with production this week by Johanna Mayer and editing this week by Kameel Stanley.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- “Summer Of Our Lives” by Stephen Sullivan
- “Blowing Clover” by Kenneth Brahmstedt
- “Ziuwa Durge” by Steve Pierson
- “Comin’ For A Change” by Stephen Sullivan
- “Child Knows Best” by Jack Ventimiglia
- “Trippin’” by Erick Anderson
- “Pong” by Kenneth Brahmstedt
- “Legend (Instrumental)” by Afrokeys
Photo courtesy of Dan Pashman.
Dan Pashman: Have you ever eaten a pickle on a stick?
Person 1: Yes, just now.
Dan Pashman: Do you think it tastes better than other kinds of pickles?
Person 1: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Why?
Person 1: Because, it's on a stick so you don't have to like get all messy.
Person 2: Cause they’re easier to eat and you don’t have to get juice all over your hands.
Person 1: It's almost like there's that mentality of it's like, it's a treat.
Person 2: I don’t know, it just enhances the pickle.
Person 1: So you get the sourness and the bitter or the, you know, all the pickle flavor, but you're eating it on a stick like it's an ice cream cone.
Dan Pashman: What do you think? What do you think? Pickle on a stick. Am I right?
Group Together: Yeah, delicious.
Dan Pashman: How good is it, right?
Person 2: Delicious.
Dan Pashman: I don't understand what makes it better.
Person 2: It’s on a stick.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today, I’m coming to you from the 41st annual Pickle Festival in Greenlawn, a suburb on Long Island. I’ve lived in the Greenlawn area for 10 years and I can tell you, it’s a great town, but it’s not known for a whole lot. It’s sandwiched between two bigger destination towns that have charming main streets and waterfront views.
Dan Pashman: Greenlawn? Greenlawn has pickles. When I moved here, I learned that pickles used to be big business on Long Island — it was the local industry. In the late 1800s, Greenlawn was covered with cucumber farms. Long Island farmers were shipping 2,000 barrels of cucumbers for pickling into New York City every single day.
Person 4: Till this day, the finest pickle is still a Long Island cucumber.
Dan Pashman And what makes Long Island pickles better?
Person 4: It's the weather and the soil.
Dan Pashman: But what I didn’t know until pretty recently was that back when Greenlawn was covered with cucumber farms, there was a guy in town known as the Pickle King — someone who, for a long time, was left out of a lot of the history of pickles on Long Island.
Dan Pashman: But for now, back to the festival. It happens every September and I don’t miss it. It’s at the Gardiner Farm, where there’s a big red barn, kids riding a miniature train, a corn maze. There are hot dogs, corn dogs, booths selling arts and crafts and a guy performing covers of Billy Joel, patron saint of Long Island.
[LIVE BILLY JOEL COVER "I'M IN A NEW YORK STATE OF MIND"]
Dan Pashman: And of course, there are pickles — barrels and barrels of pickles, which you can buy in big containers, or solo on a stick.
Dan Pashman What's your favorite pickle?
Person 5: The new dill pickles.
Dan Pashman: That's like a half sour, right?
Group Together: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, yeah. I like them too because they taste like half a cucumber, half a pickle.
Group Together: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: The whole town’s out here. There are people I know left and right, like my friend, Mike Dempsey.
Dan Pashman: Mike, you're born and raised here in Greenlawn, is that right?
Mike Dempsey: Yes, it is.
Dan Pashman: As you chomp on a pickle, like what does this day mean to you?
Mike Dempsey: It's awesome and it's, honestly, it's a place where I brought my kids now for almost 10 years straight.
Dan Pashman: When you were growing up, was it like a known thing? Like Greenlawn and pickles? Did you talk about it then?
Mike Dempsey: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Was it like a lesson in third grade?
Mike Dempsey: It was just in the ether around the town. It was just always known that pickles were a part of our history.
[GARDINER FARM AMBIANCE]
Dan Pashman: So where are we Robert?
Robert Hughes: We're at the John Gardiner Farm in Greenlawn, which is an old farm stand going back to the mid 1700s.
Dan Pashman: I returned to the Gardiner farm on a day when the Pickle Festival wasn’t happening, so I could meet the official town historian, Robert Hughes.
Dan Pashman: In its prime, the Gardiner farm was likely a couple hundred acres. The Gardiners inherited the land through marriage and it stayed in the family for generations, until the last heir gave it to the local historical society. In 1858, Alexander Gardiner bought some land from his mother and tried his hand at a number of industries: he ran a sawmill, an icehouse, a brickyard.
Dan Pashman: Then, shortly after the Civil War, a railroad was built on Long Island and Greenlawn got a stop. That was a game-changer. The train made it a lot easier to transport goods to New York City, 40 miles away, which opened up a big new market for local farmers. Around that same time, Alexander Gardiner had an idea: Pickles.
Robert Hughes: Alexander Gardiner, who we consider the pickle pioneer, he grew up here. He's sort of the person who said, hey, we should start growing cucumbers and having them pickled in Greenlawn and on Long Island.
Dan Pashman: Do we know why cucumbers in particular as opposed to any other vegetable?
Robert Hughes: For some reason he just had the vision. There must have been a call for pickles.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Robert Hughes: It's like anyone else, any good entrepreneur, you recognize there's a market need and you fill that need. And other people saw how successful he was with it and they just adopted it because you'd go where the money is. And that was the cash crop of the day.
Dan Pashman: Gardiner built processing plants that other cucumber growers could rent out to pickle their own crop. Pretty soon, Greenlawn had a thriving cucumber industry.
Robert Hughes: And there were pickling houses at the railroad station as well. It's where they would pickle the cucumbers.
Dan Pashman: Is a pickling house literally just a house? Is it a factory?
Robert Hughes: A factory, small factory.
Dan Pashman: So the farmers from the Greenlawn area would grow their cucumbers and they would bring them to the pickling houses by the train station, and that's where the cucumbers would be turned into pickles.
Robert Hughes: Right, and then shipped into the city.
Dan Pashman: But even though Alexander Gardiner had this idea to turn Long Island into a pickle mecca, he’s not the person who would be known as the Pickle King. That title would belong to someone else — a man by the name of Samuel Ballton.
Robert Hughes: Samuel Ballton was born in Westmoreland, Virginia in 1838. Born into slavery.
Dan Pashman: Samuel was one of nine children. When he was seven-years-old, he was hired out to a nearby plantation, where he lived and worked for years.
Robert Hughes: He met a woman named Rebecca and they eventually got married in 1861, just before the Civil War began.
Dan Pashman: Shortly after they were married, they were pulled apart. Samuel was conscripted by the confederacy to work on the railroads in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rebecca stayed at the plantation. Samuel bided his time, and eventually, he and a few friends attempted to escape the confederacy.
Robert Hughes: Saturday night, they started walking, and by Wednesday morning they were in Fredericksburg, about 70 miles away.
Dan Pashman: From there, Samuel spent a couple years cooking for a Union Army regiment in Wisconsin. But he kept thinking about Rebecca. Eventually, he made a decision: he needed to help her escape the plantation — escape slavery. To do that, he would have to return to the south, to Virginia, where he himself was still a wanted man.
Robert Hughes: And on the way back, he would run into Confederate soldiers and he would convince them that he had been captured by Northern troops, but he was making his way back home to the plantation. So obviously, he was a very convincing man.
Dan Pashman: Samuel made it back to the plantation where Rebecca was and they were reunited. But he decided it was too risky at that time to try to get her out. He snuck back out and waited. A few months later, he went to her again, and received a surprise. Rebecca was pregnant with their first child. Samuel decided now was the time to escape.
Robert Hughes: And then he did rescue her while she was pregnant. And they walked 50 miles in a matter of 14 hours or so, some incredible amount of distance just to get back to the northern lines and safety. So he actually escaped three times. He's never captured, but he escaped three times. He was persuasive and he — I guess, he had his wits about him enough to realize what the role he had to play at that moment was in order to survive.
Dan Pashman: Samuel and Rebecca settled in Alexandria, Virginia, where the Union had a stronghold. That's where their first son was born. Towards the end of the Civil War, Samuel fought for the Union in Massachusetts and New Orleans, while Rebecca and their son stayed in Virginia. In 1873, the Ballton family moved — this time, to Greenlawn. And this was right around when Alexander Gardiner began farming cucumbers, and when the train station was built. Samuel took a job with a white farmer in the area. But within two years, he was working his own land, and leasing more land on top of that.
Robert Hughes: I think he was up to 26 acres at one point that he was actively farming.
Dan Pashman: What was the business relationship? I'm assuming he's leasing land from white farmers.
Robert Hughes: Right. So you know some people might say he was sort of a sharecropper, but I think it was a little different than that. And farmers often lease out their land to other people to graze cattle or to actively grow crops. So, you know, he was their tenant and they, they were the landlord.
Dan Pashman: In the decade after Samuel Ballton arrived in town, the pickle industry continued to expand. A newspaper article from the time talks about how Greenlawn farmers had grown 32 million pickles that year.
Robert Hughes: And the only farmer mentioned by name was Samuel Ballton, because he had grown one and a half million.
Dan Pashman: One and a half million pickles grown in one season. Now we don’t have records to tell us how this compares to others. But since Ballton was the only farmer mentioned by name in an article about Greenlawn producing so many pickles, it seems safe to say this was considered a lot of pickles for one farmer to grow.
Robert Hughes: And maybe because he was a Black man, they thought that was worthy of note. But he must have been well enough known in the community that the name would mean something when people were reading it.
Dan Pashman: Samuel Ballton would become better known in the community, not just in Greenlawn but around Huntington, which is the larger area of Long Island that includes Greenlawn. In 1900, he was profiled in the local paper. He’d gotten into the hospitality business. He ran a boarding house, built a number of houses around town. He operated a dining tent at the local fairgrounds. For a while, he worked as a buyer for a pickle house in Boston. By the time this article came out, Samuel had solidified his place in the Greenlawn community. Add to that, those 1.5 million pickles and he had earned his famous nickname: The Pickle King.
Robert Hughes: He had a real dedication. He was a go-getter. He was always doing something to make money and to be active in the community.
Dan Pashman: As I said to Robert Hughes, hearing the story of Samuel Ballton made me question a lot of what I was taught about slavery and enslaved people when I was growing up. First, in the movies I saw as a kid, when the enslaved people were on the auction block, the biggest, strongest Black man always went for the most money. The message I got was: these people were brought here for their muscle, to work the fields. But in fact, enslaved people had tremendous agricultural expertise that helped American farming flourish as an industry. One example, that I learned from the writer Michael Twitty: Europeans didn’t know how to grow rice. Enslaved African Americans taught them. And you see that agricultural expertise in Samuel Ballton.
Dan Pashman: The other thing is that, growing up in the New York area, I was always taught about slavery and enslaved people as something that happened in the south. And Black contributions to American food are so centered in the south. I appreciated learning that there’s Black American food history right down the street from me, which suggests it’s probably right down the street from a lot of us, whether or not we learned about it in school.
Dan Pashman: I just don't hear very many stories of Black people at that time contributing anything. I mean, those stories don't seem to be the ones that get told.
Robert Hughes: Right. No, it's a very underappreciated and under understood aspect of, of local history. Because there was slavery on Long Island and in Huntington. About 6 percent of the population at one point was enslaved in Huntington. So it was smaller scale, but no less horrific for the people who were enslaved.
Dan Pashman: Where do you see Samuel Ballton’s legacy today?
Robert Hughes: I think the legacy of Samuel Ballton is that he was someone who managed to get ahead under what must have been difficult circumstances because of his background of growing up enslaved, his being a Black man in a white community. But nonetheless, he persevered and he tried many different endeavors and was successful in many different endeavors and managed to raise a family here and became, I think, a respected member of the community. You see the pictures of the Memorial Day parades and he's there in his Civil War uniform, right out there with all the other veterans. You know, some people say it looks like he's sort of front and center in some of those photographs, that people were proud to have him as part of their community.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Samual Ballton gets new recognition in Greenlawn. And I learn more about his family – by talking with some of his descendants. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. I know you love it when my mom’s on the podcast, right? Well guess what? She’s in this one! Listen to the very end of this episode to hear her recipe for — I'll say it — the best veggie dip I ever tasted, which I adapt using Hellmann’s Spicy Mayonnaise. You’re gonna love this segment and the recipe, stay tuned to the end for that.
Dan Pashman: One more thing. Remember a few years ago when everyone was getting an Instant Pot? Well recently, the company filed for bankruptcy. In last week’s episode I find out what happened, and we take a spin through some other hot topics in food. I talk with food writer Dennis Lee about getting his local Burger King to recreate Burger King Thailand’s cheeseburger. This “cheeseburger” is just 20 slices of cheese, with no meat:
CLIP (DENNIS LEE): I have never seen anything like it. It was hilarious. This thing was just — like a melted mound of plastic.
CLIP (DENNIS LEE): It was shiny, it reflected in your face. [LAUGHING] You could probably see your reflection in it. And we both took bites of it right in the middle where the pile of cheese was the tallest.
Dan Pashman: You gotta listen to the episode to find out what Dennis thought of it and to hear about other pressing news from the world of food, including whether aspartame is actually bad for you. That’s up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Now, back to the story of the Pickle King of Greenlawn. Samuel Ballton died in 1917. A few years later, a blight arrived. A fungus stunted the cucumbers’ growth, and they’d turn white and got too hard to eat. Nobody could find a fix. Farmers quit planting cucumbers, and Greenlawn’s pickle industry basically disappeared.
Dan Pashman: It would be decades before the town would acquire its other claim to fame. On March 27, 1969, Mariah Carey was born. She’s from Greenlawn. My friend Todd claims when she was in high school, she threw up in the basement bathroom of the house he now owns. I can’t verify that claim, but Todd does give tours if you’re interested.
Dan Pashman: Fortunately, kids growing up here still know about the town’s connection to pickles. The park behind the library is named Pickle Park. And every September, there’s the Pickle Festival, where I met a group of college-age women …
Person 6: I've come here as a kid and I thought I'd bring my friends and I told her about it and she had to come fly here for it.
Person 7: She came from England for the Pickle Festival.
Dan Pashman: What? That can't be true.
Person 7: No, it's true.
Lauren: Yeah, it is true.
Person 6: Well, first of all, she loves pickles. It's kind of like her favorite thing. Like you think Lauren, and then you kind of think pickle.
Lauren: Yeah. Very true. [LAUGHING] Yeah.
Person 6: I was like, well, you have to come to the pickle festival. It's every year.
Dan Pashman: Lauren, is it everything you expected?
Lauren: Everything and more.
Lauren: The most American thing I’ve ever been to in my entire existence.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: In recent years, more people have learned about Samuel Ballton, thanks to the work of the area’s African American Historic Designation Council, and other town leaders. The council was formed in 2005, and they’ve been slowly bringing more attention to Samuel Ballton’s story. They began by putting on some local exhibits about him at the town church and at the train station. A few years later, they put up a couple of historical markers around town, small signs near houses he built that share a bit of his story. Then in 2021, the council recommended that a street be renamed for the Pickle King.
CLIP (IRENE MOORE): Good morning. I welcome all of you, and invite you to share the history of African Americans in the town of Huntington …
Dan Pashman: This is Irene Moore, chair of the African American Historic Designation Council, speaking at the street renaming ceremony. The town of Huntington that she’s referring to is the local governing body for Greenlawn — so, people sometimes use the town names interchangeably.
Dan Pashman: Irene first learned about Samuel Ballton when she moved to the area in 1970. She says that for the most part, the local Black community was always familiar with the Pickle King. But until recently, his story wasn’t widely publicized or taught in schools.
CLIP (IRENE MOORE): As you know, African American history is not only Huntington’s history, but is America’s history. So again thank you all for coming, thanks for being here.
Dan Pashman: The street being renamed is pretty short, a section of Boulevard Avenue with a couple of houses that ends in a cul-de-sac. It was chosen because Samuel Ballton lived in the house on the corner. That street would now be known as Samuel Ballton Way. On the day of the renaming, the block was closed. There was a podium set up, several local politicians were there to speak, and there was a pretty good crowd for a small town.
CLIP (JOAN CERGOL): Wow. What a turnout for Sam Ballton, huh? You know, as I read about Sam Ballton ...
Dan Pashman: A few civil war reenactors were there, in Union Army uniforms. Some teachers and students from the school district came. There was even a local TV news truck. And some special guests …
CLIP (EVENT SPEAKER): And we also have the family from Sam Ballton’s descendants here. William H. Ballton II. Also, Carl Ballton, his great, great grandchild. Give them a round of applause to the families far and wide to be with us today …
Dan Pashman: Carl Ballton, Samuel Ballton’s great-great grandson, got up to speak.
CLIP (CARL BALLTON): The first thing that impressed me about Sam was the great love that he had for his wife, Rebecca — a love that caused him to risk his life, to free her from slavery. So he was a great family man. I learned that he was also a great civic leader and a builder as much of his handiwork remains to this day. And finally, I learned that he was a fantastic businessman. He was indeed the Pickle King. So thank you on behalf of the Ballton family.
Dan Pashman: After the ceremony, I spoke with Carl Ballton, who now lives in Georgia …
CLIP (CARL BALLTON): I am the oldest living Ballton, and I'm 74-years-old. So, you know, I didn't really have a lot of knowledge of my father's family. I saw a slave narrative that talked about the Sam and Rebecca Ballton story, and that's really when I first really learned about Sam. So it was just amazing to me. And so we were able to come up here and I went through the historical society and saw the exhibit and everything that they have for him, and so that was a revelation.
Dan Pashman: Off to the side, I noticed a couple other Ballton relatives. They were younger — late 20s, early 30s, and they’d come all the way from L.A. for this ceremony.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Please tell me both of your names, please.
CLIP (LEIGHANN BALLTON): Leighann Ballton.
CLIP (BRIAN BALLTON): My name is Brian Ballton.
Dan Pashman: Samuel Ballton was Leighann’s great great great grandfather. Once she discovered the story of her ancestor …
CLIP (LEIGHANN BALLTON): I was like … Wait, what? I love pickles! Do you mean that I could possibly be the pickle princess?
CLIP (LEIGHANN BALLTON): That is amazing. [LAUGHS] I gotta eat more pickles.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: In recent years, more stories of Black Americans, like Samuel Ballton, have come to light. Now, I pass his street whenever I drop my kids off at school, and I enjoy sharing his story with them when we go to the pickle festival each year.
Dan Pashman: A few months after the street renaming ceremony, I called up Leighann Ballton to talk about how all this has affected her…
Leighann Ballton: That was a beautiful experience to come down and see the renamed street after him ... Sorry, I’m just emotional. Sorry. Just being able to stand on that, you know, the front lawn of the property that he built. I always saw pictures, but I had never been there. It was really ... It was really emotional. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Have you and your family had a chance to sort of reflect on that day?
Leighann Ballton: We had a family meeting over Zoom and we were able to share our experiences. And a lot of the family members that wanted to come and couldn't, a lot of them were just really overwhelmed with joy and excited. And a lot of that side of my family they're older, so they were just thankful that they were able to find out more information. So we really got to just share in that experience together as a family and it actually brought us closer together. Especially for our younger generations that were on that call, it was really good for them to really get to understand and grasp a lot of the stories that, you know, I didn't get to at their age.
Dan Pashman: Coming to Greenlawn, standing in the spot where Samuel Ballton stood, learning more details of his story than you knew before, how did that change the way you think of yourself?
Leighann Ballton: It's helped me overcome doubting myself and kind of like being hesitant to try new things. It's kind of pushed me to just keep pushing forward and initiating new ideas. And I just always hold that notion of that, you know, he was a leader and he was able to accomplish so much and I have that too, I can do that same thing.
Dan Pashman: A few years ago, I spoke with Dr. Jessica B. Harris for an episode of the show. She’s spent her career uncovering the ways that Black Americans have fundamentally shaped food in this country. In that conversation, I asked her what impact those stories had on her.
CLIP (DR. JESSICA B. HARRIS): My spine may have straightened a little bit more. I might have, you know, walked a little taller and been a little bit prouder. I think that this whole notion of hidden heroes, and we've got so many hidden or stolen or strayed or ...
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Erased.
CLIP (DR. JESSICA B. HARRIS): Erased African Americans in all realms, not just the culinary, that deserve that cry out for reestablishment.
Dan Pashman: I told Dr. Harris about Samuel Ballton. And I told her how Greenlawn — this mostly white town in the Long Island suburbs — isn’t where I expected to find a story like his.
CLIP (DR. JESSICA B. HARRIS): Well, I mean, I think the thing that's so fascinating is that he is in the suburbs of Long Island. Because if — I mean, if you begin to think about it in those terms, when we start talking about these hidden heroes, that if they can be found in this town, Greenlawn in Long Island unexpectedly, then how many other stories are there?
Dan Pashman: My thanks to everyone who I spoke with in this episode. The 43rd Annual Greenlawn Pickle Festival will take place at the John Gardiner Farm in Greenlawn on September 16th from 10 to 4. Come experience the magic of pickles on a stick! Who knows, maybe Mariah Carey will be there. But probably not, I don’t think she’s been back in a while.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, I travel to rural Virginia to go foraging with a man who's carrying on a family tradition and supplying high end ingredients to local restaurants. That's next week. While you're waiting for that one, check out last week's episode in which we take a spin through some hot topics in the world of food from Instant Pot's bankruptcy to Burger King's Thailand's cheeseburger to much more. That one's up now.