To the counter-hipster critics of pop culture — with “Portlandia” serving as chief arbiter of all trends worth mocking — pickling is a punch line. The food-preservation process is merely a sign that an entire generation has overcompensated for its wired and electronic ways by donning vintage clothes and pouring brine over fresh vegetables, as if millennials could reverse time with hot vinegar.
One look around the Washington area would seem to confirm that we’re in the throes of a pickling mania. Farmers markets, gourmet shops and grocery stores are practically overrun by barrels and jars of quick-pickled and fermented vegetables, produced by local companies with such names as In a Pickle, Gordy’s Pickle Jar, Number 1 Sons, Oh! Pickles, Fresh Crunch Pickles and no doubt others that hover below my radar. You can even DIY via any number of pickling classes, such as the semi-regular ones from LivingSocial .
If you chat with these artisan picklers, however, you soon understand that they’re not exactly chasing trends or trying to reconnect to some pastoral period before smartphones and social networks left us in a paradoxical paralysis: overconnected to technology and disconnected from nature. They have their own personal or professional reasons why they went into a demanding business that’s far from some retro-hipster hobby in which they get to play with fresh produce. These people get up early and work late to bring you a crisp, preserved bite from the garden.
It’s true that pickling provides a low barrier to entry into the culinary world. The skill required to develop a custom brine, choose and prepare the right vegetables and nurture them into flavorful pickles is less demanding than, say, the tools needed to work in the kitchen at CityZen. But as with so many specialized foods, whether barbecue or bread or cheese, the art of the pickle is not about the degree of difficulty but about the artisan’s dedication to the craft and an almost unhealthy willingness to chop vegetables, day and night.
Over at the Montserrat House on Ninth Street NW, where Gordy’s Pickle Jar leases kitchen space, owners Sheila Fain and Sarah Gordon explain the tedious process involved in producing their sweet pepper relish, a blend of diced cucumbers, bell peppers, garlic and onions in a brine that exquisitely balances sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors. When they first started making the relish, they would cut each vegetable by hand into tiny cubes called brunoise, no doubt producing calluses along with all those diced cukes. It would take a day to turn out four cases of relish, or four dozen 16-ounce jars, which is not exactly Heinz-level production.
The owners have since moved on to a DynaCube, a hand-cranked device that neatly dices vegetables in seconds flat. There was just one problem for Fain, clearly the perfectionist of the pair: The dice was not small enough. So she runs the vegetables through the DynaCube twice for every jar of sweet pepper relish. Even with the new equipment, Gordy’s can pickle and can only 10 to 12 cases day, each by hand, which begins to explain that $10 price per jar.
Between the equipment upgrades and the company’s first part-time employee, Mike Karamanov, who helps prep Gordy’s line of seven pickled products, “it’s now a possibility to have a dinner together,” says Gordon, who is also Fain’s partner outside the confines of the stainless-steel kitchen.
The key word here is “possibility,” given the 15-hour days the women work, markedly more than what either Fain and Gordon were logging previously as a Dolci Gelati sales rep and a branding/communications consultant, respectively. In the 17 months since Gordy’s launched in November 2011, the operation has mushroomed into a local pickle powerhouse, if you’ll excuse the mixed produce metaphor. Its products can be found in 40 stores, including Whole Foods Markets and MOM’s Organic Markets, and they’ve made cameo appearances at restaurants, bars and even Peregrine Espresso. What’s more, Gordy’s sweet chips copped a Good Food Award this year.
The owners are loath to surrender much control over a company that has already exceeded their expectations, even if such success requires the women to spend their days pickling and canning at the Montserrat House and their evenings affixing labels at their apartment office. The pair hasn’t ruled out outside investors, even if they don’t see themselves ever working with a manufacturing company, commonly known as a co-packer. But they would take outside investment only if they could maintain control over the operation.
“The quality of the product is the important thing,” says Fain. “In growing the company, we’d rather bring in [our own] people then hire a. . . .”
“Co-packer,” Gordon finishes the sentence.
Gordon and Fain can exercise considerable quality control because they use a quick-pickling technique in which they pour hot brine over prepped vegetables and spices, creating a sterile environment in which the vinegar and aromatics impart much of the flavor. They then submerge their jarred pickles in a hot-water bath to seal them tight. When the steps are done properly, the women can go from a raw vegetable to a shelf-stable, essentially cooked and canned product in a 24-hour period, no problem and no contamination concerns.
The canning process — and a proper, government-approved label on your product — can open the door for a pickler to enter supermarkets, as Gordy’s has proved. Of course, some producers would just as soon skip the retail experience, with its cutthroat economics and shelf-placement politics. Jason Gallant, owner of Baltimore-based In a Pickle, prefers to sell his pickled cukes out of barrels at Eastern Market on weekends. As a one-man operation, Gallant doesn’t yet want to invest the money or time in canning.
Plus, pickles are a “visual product,” says Gallant, who started In a Pickle five years ago after watching his previous granola and bagel companies slowly spiral downward. “You really want to see this product” in a barrel.
Like Gordy’s, Gallant makes quick pickles, including ones laced with wasabi and Old Bay seasoning. But he typically waits to start production until pickling cucumbers — those small, warty Kirby varieties — come into season, and come down in price. It doesn’t make sense to pickle cucumbers when they’re running $40-plus a bushel, Gallant notes, and he’s selling them for $5 a pint.
“When they’re really rolling in, that’s when you do” your own pickles, says Gallant.
Both Gallant and Oh! Pickles owner Arondo Holmes augment their quick-pickle products with preserved cukes from New York, that epicenter of classic kosher dills. Much like Gallant, Holmes came to pickling after the sagging U.S. economy in the late 2000s started to drag down his other business, Hondo Coffee. Holmes buys mostly kosher dills from his Big Apple supplier, but he says they’re all quick-pickled, which must make the old timers down on Essex Street in the Lower East Side weep for the lost art of fermentation. True kosher dills, after all, should be made the old-fashioned way: through lacto-fermentation.
“The fermented style takes weeks,” says Holmes, who sells his own quick-pickled okra, kimchi, peppers, beets and more out of barrels at Union Market. “It’s more fussy, and you can get more of the bacterial issues.”
Americans have a love-hate relationship with bacteria: We pop antibiotics like candy to ward off the bad stuff, while searching supermarket shelves for probiotic products to load us up on the good stuff. Lacto-fermentation picklers are decided bacteria buffs.
“In our bodies, bacteria outnumber the cells containing our unique DNA 10 to 1,” writes Sandor Ellix Katz in “The Art of Fermentation” (Chelsea Green, 2012), regarded as the bible of new-school fermenters.
“Bacteria break down nutrients we would not otherwise be able to digest,” Katz continues, “and play an important role, just beginning to be recognized, in regulating the balance between energy use and storage.” Humans, in other words, should nurture the bacteria in their bodies instead of constantly trying to kill the microbes as if they were aliens out to attack us.
Caitlin and Yi Wah Roberts, founders of Number 1 Sons in Arlington, are the children of an Irish father and Chinese mother, and together, the siblings have drunk deeply from the Katz brine.
“We call him the kraut-father,” deadpans Caitlin, a senior government major at the College of William and Mary.
Katz’s influence is readily apparent with Number 1 Sons, a name that both pays homage to and pokes fun at the Chinese custom of placing so many rewards and expectations on the first-born male. Founded last year, the company preserves vegetables only through lacto-fermentation, in which lactic-acid bacteria lower the pH and naturally pickle the produce, whether cabbage for Number 1 Sons’ kimchi or cucumbers for its District Dills. The approach requires more patience than quick-pickling; Yi Wah has to monitor his vegetables through their transformation, checking pH levels and determining when they’ve hit the right moment to move from a cool fermenting space to the refrigerator, where the process slows considerably.
“It’s not a food that you can completely control. It’s not a recipe: You follow this and it’s done,” says Caitlin. “I say that we guide it.”
The risk-reward ratio, as Yi Wah likes to point out, weighs heavily toward the latter side of the equation. Katz has repeatedly said there have been no reported food poisonings from sauerkraut or other fermented foods in the United States, while the rewards derived from fermentation place these products in a kind of superfood category all their own: one that combines health benefits with the superior, funk-forward flavors that can be created only with living bacteria in a hospitable environment. It’s no wonder Number 1 Sons continues to secure more shelf space around town, from Smucker Farms on 14th Street or the new Glen’s Garden Market near Dupont Circle.
“It’s kind of this historical thing we’re participating in,” says Yi Wah, a former Marine, noting the founding fathers’ love for pickles. “We like being connected with all that.”
And yet: Across Glen’s Garden Market from the refrigerator case full of Number 1 Sons products, in-store chef Sean Sullivan is experimenting with a modern, Thomas Keller-inspired method for making pickles, one that maintains a vegetable’s color better than either quick-pickling or lacto-fermentation. He’s taking watermelon radishes, asparagus, beets and other vegetables and pickling them under vacuum, sous-vide style. The method’s main benefit is speed.