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Pickled foods, by the peck

A market in the far Northeast caters to emigres. Elsewhere, old-timey pickle barrels sprout.

Near the intersection of Bustleton Avenue with Byberry Road, which is to say in the farthest corner of the far Northeast, you will note in a shopping center that features a Home Depot and a Hong Kong-style banquet hall, a generic box of a supermarket that goes by the equally unevocative name of Net Cost.

It is the southernmost of the Net Cost empire, which includes four outlets in Brooklyn, and one in Staten Island, all designed to appeal to the tastes of Eastern Europe's emigres - to the Russians and Ukrainians, the Czechs and Poles who have resettled in those precincts, and similarly in Philadelphia's far Northeast.

So you will find in its aisles the usual suspects - vast arrays of salami of every description ("Chicago," "Moscow," "Old Jewish, Gypsy Wide"), and smoked fish, bronzed and stacked like cordwood, and boxed tea bearing the likeness of Czar Nicholas II, in addition to more recent interlopers: Amish yogurt from Pequea Valley Farm, choices of organic milk, even an obligatory "sugar-free" section.

But what strikes a newcomer, besides the mammoth ham on the bone being sliced to order, and homemade blood sausage, and pastry-wrapped meat pirogie, is an extended counter devoted to the ancient and elemental arts of pickling and marinating.

The sheer variety is astonishing - whole red cabbages bobbing, and humped rounds of marinated lettuce, and slightly puckered yellow apples, cherry and green tomatoes, and sweetly juicy red peppers (similar to Amish-style, frankly), shredded cabbage (sweet, mild salad


), and square patches of cabbage (the vegetal salad


), and sour cabbage, still this side of fermented, and mild, gently tart assortments of marinated mushrooms that, the next evening, are sublime with toasty hunks of Uzbeki bread.

There are even - what a surprise! - crunchy, lightly brined wedges of sweet watermelon (the green


sugary red parts), redolent of garlic and dill and spice.

And of course, dour sour pickles and emerald half-sours, the size of a thumb, just right for a bite with a crisp shot of vodka.

It is no mystery why the pickling arts took hold, back before refrigeration and even the advent of canning. They were the only way (well, if you don't count drying and salting) to "preserve summer," as a piece in Saveur once put it, noting the brevity of Russia's.

Neither is it hard to figure the hold of an ancestral taste: Grow up with pickled sorrel or mashed cucumbers, tangy eggplant caviar or beautiful red beet eggs, and you will forever lust for them in your heart.

But here's a wrinkle not as easily explained in an irradiated, shrink-wrapped, tamper-proof, Cryovac-ed time - the reemergence of the old-time, wide-open pickle barrel (or pail).

Ranks of them sprouted recently in the Pennsylvania Dutch aisle of the Reading Terminal Market. At orderly Whole Foods Market even, half-sours with Lower East Side accents can now be fished from a barrel near the cheese.

At Net Cost's outpost here in Somerton - not far from shelves of bottled pickles, and trays of beet-and-potato salad called


- the bulk pails are a destination, in need of constant replenishment by the uniformed woman who patrols them and dishes out their contents.

Could it be their transparency? The stuff may have been pickled in Queens, but here it is loose, real and unpackaged, aswim in little more than vinegar and sugar, salt and garlic.

Or could it be, simply, their eternal promise: Will this be the batch, you wonder, that offers up the perfect, proper, half-sour pickle?

Net Cost Market

11701 Bustleton Ave.