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David Lissner
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The Picasso put Chicago in a pickle

Dill pickle

In 1965, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso presented Chicago with a maquette for the nameless, 50-foot-tall cubist sculpture that now graces Daley Center Plaza as a beloved symbol of the city. The City Council approved final plans for the full-sized sculpture the following year, but not without controversy.

Chicagoans reacted with outrage to the sculpture’s aesthetics, its nameless status and ambiguous subject, the Communist politics of its creator and more.

Local pundits such as Herb Lyons called it a “weird bit of symbolic sculpture” … “for the birds” and predicted, “This towering statue could make things even more confusing outside the [Civic] Center than they are inside!”

Ald. John Hoellen (47th) said, “The statue represents the power of city hall, stark, ugly, overpowering, frightening,” and went so far as to propose to the City Council that the “rusting heap of iron” be shipped to France and replaced with a statue of Cubs star Ernie Banks.

So it became a famous joke in 1966 when a Chicago public-relations firm used the proposed site to erect a giant pickle.

In a 1997 interview, science-fiction writer Algis Budrys recounted the incident from his years as a Chicago publicist:

“It got to a point where the kids — there are four boys — were eating 10-dollar bills for lunch. So I got a job in a PR shop. We had Pickle Packers International as a client.

“At one point, we built a 12-foot pickle [and] presented it to the city of Chicago, which had an empty courthouse square because people had objected to the Picasso sculpture originally intended for the site. . . . So we had all the newspapermen out, a tremendous event. . . .

“They called it the ‘Picklecasso.’

“I did that.

“What happened to the pickle? We gave it to someone who cut out a hole in it and entered it in a canoe race on the Fox River. In the middle of the race, he turned it over. It floated away. The Fox connects to the Illinois; the Illinois connects to the Mississippi. That pickle could be anywhere.”

Chicago still loves its pickles! Yet perhaps because Chicagoans get their fill of dills atop hot dogs, we don’t have the tradition of specialty pickle stores that New York has in its Guss’ Pickles, The Pickle Guys, Picklelicious and others.

The closest thing we have to a New York-style pickle store in the city is the recently opened Gramp’s Gourmet Foods stand at the Chicago French Market. Gramp’s, founded by Bill “Gramps” Brickner in 2005, puts up pickles in Scales Mound, Ill., near Galena.

Which is not to say Chicagoland doesn’t have its share of pickle makers. Although the most prevalent local name, Chipico, founded in 1925, and acquired by Vienna Beef in 1984, is Chicago Pickle Company today in name only — its products are pickled in Florida and California — local picklers include Lisle’s That Pickle Guy, who brings his products to area farmers’ markets; The Puckered Pickle Co., which has been producing pickles on Chicago’s West Side for over 30 years (they’re available online and at a variety of Chicagoland retailers), and the biggest: Claussen, based in Woodstock, and known for its refrigerated dills.

Claussen’s pickle business started in the 19th century with Illinois farmer Hans Claus, who grew vegetables on his family farm near Chicago. About 1870, he got stuck with a crop of cucumbers he couldn’t sell — so he pickled them.

Claus and his family continued to produce pickles, bottling them with a standard heat process. In the 1960s, about the time the Picklecasso made its appearance, his great-great-grandson Ed Claussen perfected a way to keep the crunch of a new dill in a jar. His experiments resulted in the crisp, fresh-tasting refrigerated pickle that is today the staple of the business.

The brand expanded nationwide after Oscar Mayer & Co. bought Claussen in 1970 and in 1976 replaced its plant at 5100 S. Western Blvd., Chicago, with a northwest suburban facility. Northfield-based Kraft Foods took over Oscar Mayer and Claussen in 1989, but all Claussen pickles are still made at 1300 Claussen Drive, Woodstock.

Maybe when the giant eyeball in the Loop goes away in the fall, the city could resurrect the big pickle.

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