The Texas Treat With a Juicy Tale
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
I should not have been surprised. I've spent countless hours at the Minnesota State Fair, and I lived in Texas for seven years. So I'm familiar with deep-fried pickles on a stick and with the independent thinking of the residents of the Lone Star State.
Still, the Pickle Sickle caught me off guard. An ice pop made of frozen pickle juice doesn't sound like something people would be clamoring for. Then again, in an era when candy companies compete for bragging rights over whose flavor is the sourest, perhaps the appeal of a little pucker power makes sense.
Sure enough, Pickle Sickles are selling at the rate of about 20,000 a month, mostly through the Internet. Who knew?
John Howard knew, but that's because he created them. Though the degree of popularity has surprised him, Howard, 43, knew he was on to something when he began freezing leftover jarred pickle juice at his roller skating rink and arcade in Seguin, Texas, a year ago.
The Web site for the Pickle Sickle plays up the product's "bizarre" and "crazy" aspects, but the idea actually isn't so strange. People in that part of the state -- Seguin is about 35 miles from San Antonio -- have always drunk pickle juice. "There are a lot of closet pickle drinkers in South Texas," Howard says. "We're trying to get everyone out of the closet."
At trade shows, he says, people -- generally over 50 -- tell him they used to drink big swigs of pickle juice out of jars when they were kids. "Their moms would hit them over the head to get them to stop," he says.
But freezing it? Howard got the idea from his daughter-in-law. She had eaten the frozen stuff as a child at church camp, where the counselors put the juice in ice cube trays with toothpicks.
He was already selling pickles at the roller rink's snack bar, so he started to freeze his leftover pickle juice -- really the brine from the pickle jars -- and sell that, too. "We sold 200 to 300 every Friday and Saturday night," he says. Then they began to run out of pickle juice.
Because they think big in Texas, Howard got a "giant hydraulic press" last October to process the pickles. "We're the first to squeeze our own pickle juice," he says. They squeeze about 10 gallons -- about 150 pickles -- at a time and have nothing left at the end but the skins. No more leftover brine: Pickle Sickles are made only from freshly pressed pickles.
At the roller rink, 9- to 16-year-olds were the main Pickle Sickle customers. But older people like pickle juice, too. A Pickle Sickle rep in Southern California is trying to sell the product to assisted-living communities. "We have a weird demographic," Howard says. "It's either kids or people 50 and above."
And pregnant women, naturally. (Pickles and ice cream. Think about it.)
There are now two flavors: original and jalapeño. The original tastes just like a pickle. The jalapeño nearly took my head off. My 96-year-old father liked both.