Not Your Grandfather's Pickle


On the surface, Rick Field, a Yale graduate and former TV producer for Bill Moyers, would not seem the most likely candidate to become a pickle peddler, much less spearhead a new pickling movement. But he has done just that. The entrepreneur behind Brooklyn (N.Y.)-based Rick's Picks is offering New-World twists on an Old-World condiment, inventing a whole new pickle palate in an industry whose heyday was a century ago -- and creating a market in the process.

It started as a hobby. Field learned the art of pickling when he was growing up in Vermont. About eight years ago, gripped by a sense of nostalgia, he took up pickling again. In his tiny kitchen, Field made family recipes and then quickly began experimenting.

Inspired by the trend in ethnic food fusion, he infused his brine with new flavors and essences such as coconut and dried cherries, dreaming up innovative varieties of pickled cucumbers, cauliflower, and string beans. "In food, people were interested in new flavors and creating new ideas," he says. "I put that into my pickles."

IN THE BRINE. Field gave his offbeat hybrids to friends and family. Their wildly enthusiastic response to his Windy City Wasabeans (soybeans in wasabi brine) and Slices of Life (sliced pickles in aromatic garlic brine) told him he was onto something. So four years ago, Field entered the annual Rosendale International Pickle Festival in upstate New York and won six ribbons, including Best in Show.

After defending his title for two successive years, Field decided to go pro. "It galvanized me to take my hobby more seriously," he says. At the end of 2003 his job with Moyers ended, and Field says he decided "to go for it."

Initially, Field gained a local following selling his wares at the Union Square Green Market in Manhattan and on his Web site (www.rickspicksnyc). Culinary nods from New York magazine and Food & Wine soon followed, and Field found himself in the brine full-time.

SQUARE JARS. The challenge, he says, came in converting a personal passion into a viable business without losing the artisanal spirit in translation. "It was really an issue of scalability," he says. "From home canning to making 80 cases in multiples of 40 was not straightforward. I made this first massive batch of brine that was incredibly vinegary. I had to throw it out."

That was a relatively inexpensive mistake. Field says he blew $1,000 on labels that were not refrigerator-grade. Furthermore, he chose square jars that he says looked great, but the labeling machine couldn't roll properly. Field ended up hand-rolling 3,000 jars.

In one year, Field says, his sales have increased 200%. He sells 10 different varieties (nine more are in the works) online and in specialty stores in nine states including Whole Foods (WMFI) and Dean & Deluca. Now, he says, "My issues are not of pickling but of taking a small business and nurturing it into an intelligent business."

PICKLE POPULARITY. He's not the only one facing that challenge. Until recently, pickling was a dying art. The number of pickle merchants in New York City, once the cuke capital, had by the late 1990s dwindled to less than a handful. By 2000, only Guss's, established in 1910 on Essex Street, had survived.

Across the country there were a few outfits, such as Minneapolis' fifth-generation family-owned Gedney's, which celebrated its 125th anniversary this summer. But for the most part, the descendant of the Eastern European culinary tradition could be found only on supermarket shelves in mass-produced jars.

However, in the past five years, the pickle has made something of a comeback. Fueled in part by the artisanal movement, an interest in unprocessed foods, and the trend in ethnic flavors, a new crop of pickle merchants have revitalized the iconic cuke. Borrowing from Eastern European customs and marrying them to those of Indian, Chinese, Korean, and other pickling traditions, the new picklers offer both an urban sophistication and a folksy, homespun allure.

A NEW TRADITION. Sold at farmer's markets across the country and in gourmet specialty stores, these new pickle crossbreeds are finding their way onto the menus of trendy, upscale restaurants and pickle bars. They've also given rise to a number of shops devoted to the making and selling of homemade pickles.

"After 100 years, pickles were on their way out," says Lucy Norris, the author of Pickled: Preserving a World of Tastes & Traditions and the commercial kitchen manager at the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University in Portland. "Now you see people in their 20s and 30s reclaiming their food heritage, making pickles accessible and combining Old-World flavors with ethnic ingredients and a making a completely new pickle."

The new pickle makers, many based in New York, have introduced hundreds of varieties of vegetables, relishes, and chutneys, radically expanding the concept of the pickle -- and the pickle vendor. For instance, China Food Import in Chinatown sells salted lemons and pickled ginger. Just Pickles, which has two Manhattan locations, is known for its spicy sweet gherkins. And M&I International Food in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach sells numerous varieties of Russian pickles.

"A STAPLE OF LIFE." Alan Kaufman gave up his job as an advertising photographer to pickle full-time. A former manager of Guss's, Kaufman in 2002 opened Pickle Guys (www.nycpickleguys.com) on the Lower East Side, offering 29 different types of his barrel-cured pickled cucumbers, carrots, mushrooms, olives, and watermelon. "Pickles are like a staple of life," he says. "I have regular city customers who've known me a long time, but there are now a lot of young people and tourists."

Indeed, four years ago the New York Food Museum launched the first annual International Pickle Day. What started as a heritage celebration ended up being a kind of U.N. pickle festival, with merchants from all over selling everything from Chinese pickled scallions to Lebanese salted turnips and Russian pickled vodka watermelon. The museum's director, Nancy Ralph, says that 2,500 people showed up the first year. This year an estimated 6,000 people attended.

The pull of the pickle is being felt outside of New York, too. Two years ago, Portland (Ore.) restaurateur David Barber and organic farmer Kay Weckerling began pickling when she had a bumper crop of cucumbers. The flavors and varieties that the pair came up with became so popular that they started a side business, Picklopolis (www.picklopolis.com). Billing their product line as the "Pickle of the Future," they sell free-range peppers, sea beans, squash, and tomatoes with names such as Robustini Peppers and Pickle 'o the Sea. The pair sold them first at the Portland Farmer's Market and then at Barber's Three Square Grill restaurant.

"HIPSTER PICKLER." Sales, about $2,000 a week, have been almost as robust as their pickled peppers. Next year they plan to expand their offerings to include orange fennel beets and spicy carrots. Barber expects his pickle business to double or triple, so he's getting a new and bigger kitchen just for pickling. "Customers come in and say, 'That's interesting,'" says Barber. "They make a face and then say, 'I'll take a pound-and-a-half of that.'"

Looking at the pickle renaissance he is often credited with helping to start, Rick Field, dubbed the "world's first hipster pickler," demurs: "I prefer to say I'm bringing a sense of vitality to a traditional way of thinking." Whatever way you slice it, the pickle is back, and so is the pickle peddler.

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