ARTISANS: The Power of Sour

powerofsour

A third-generation pickle man comes into his own.

Nicholas Horman had been up since 4 a.m., getting ready to bring his five-gallon buckets of pickles to market, and by early afternoon, as the neighboring farm stands began to break down their tables, he was still happily plugging his product to a steady stream of customers.

It was opening day at the Sag Harbor farmers market and throngs of pickle patrons were stocking up for Memorial Day barbecues, taking home pints and quarts of Horman’s Best Half Sours, New Dills, Cherry Peppers and Red Flannels, a sweet pickle flecked with bell peppers. Some asked about ingredients, others wanted to know the health benefits of lacto fermentation, still others were all business——cutting to the chase and ordering a classic pickle on a stick. Horman’s girlfriend, Beatrice, took orders, diligently filling plastic quarts with Sweet Cajuns, then gingerly ladling brine over the glass-like pickle chips. They sold so many pickles they ran out of lids for containers and had to sneak off to a sandwich shop to buy a sleeve from the owner.

“Different markets have different tastes,” says Horman, who sells at 13 markets each week. “At the market on Long Beach they’re like, ‘I just want a sour pickle.’ Here, in Sag Harbor and East Hampton, people remember the Lower East Side and the pickles their families used to make.”

Horman’s own family has been making pickles for three generations, and there’s no question that he and his cousin Ron will take over the family business when the moment presents itself. While his dad and uncle continue to supply deli chains and look ahead to the development of a jar line that will stock supermarket shelves with their well-recognized kosher dills, Horman is cutting his teeth on a scaled-down operation, Horman’s Best Pickles, an artisanally crafted line that has been gaining a steady following over the last six years at markets on Long Island, in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Instead of building more wholesale accounts, he’s chosen to tap into the local food scene.

“People are really pumped about supporting local vendors— especially those that center around food——it brings volume back into the community. It’s about the content of your experience, and young people have a hunger for that.”

In a way, Horman’s reliance on building personal relationships with customers is a return to the original family business——entrepreneurship runs in his blood just as much as pickle brine does. In 1953 his grandfather bought a pickle cart from Allen Pickle Works in Brooklyn. Grandpa Joe, a 6-foot-5 Polish man known as “Big Joe,” moved the business and his family to Queens for a better life and more space to live, and was joined by his son, Nick Sr., who earned his
high school diploma early to help out at the market where they brined the pickles in the back of their distribution truck. Nick Sr. and his brother, Ron, eventually took the business over, and since 1992 have been running the pickle plant in Glen Cove. In terms of large-scale industry, the complex is a relatively small affair, with 22 employees, a processing room where the cucumbers are rinsed, sorted and sliced into spears or chips, and modest offices that host a few desks and as many bench presses. The air smells deeply of vinegar.

“If you’re going to be a pickle man, you’ve got to be strong,” says Horman, a bright-eyed 26-year-old, with a scruffy beard and a mop of curls. Horman, who lugs around full five-gallon pails of pickles without complaint, wears a flannel shirt unbuttoned over a mustard-yellow company T-shirt imprinted with his logo “Think. Question. Pickle.”

“Pickles always make people laugh. I don’t know why——innuendo, I guess. Even in high school I was known as the pickle guy.” Horman first worked the line in the pickle plant at the age of five, but it wasn’t until he was in college, trying to make some extra money over the summer, that he found his niche within the family business. Horman makes his pickles on Mondays in a small kitchen at the factory, with one door leading to the processing room, the other to the office. Teeming five-gallon pails of chips roll off the conveyor belt and are then cured in a 500-gallon barrel. Outside the processing room, four 2,500-gallon Plexiglas barrels reside like tanks, intimidating the smaller artisanal production nearby. Once cured, the pickles are packed into the five-gallon buckets and stored in the modestly titled “cold room,” an air-conditioned warehouse that serves as a gigantic walk-in cooler where flats of full buckets are stacked from floor to ceiling. The temperature hovers around 38 degrees.

He buys pails of sliced cucumbers from his family——enough to make 200–-300 gallons a week. As a small-business man he is lucky: He is able to rely on his family for space and shared equipment, as well as a body of knowledge that they have acquired over the last 60 years in the pickle trade. In the back of the processing room, right by the spot where trucks bring in the loads of cucumbers (this time of year they’re arriving from Florida and Michigan), Nick Sr. smokes a cigar and recalls going into delis to push his product as a young pickle man.

“All I know is pickles. We started by selling condiments——mayo, relish, mustard——things we knew the diners needed, and then while we were there we’d sell them our Sours.” Nick Sr. is weathered and trim, with a thick accent and a matter-of-fact demeanor. His son stands at his side, anticipating every anecdote he is about to rattle off, with just the right balance of quiet embarrassment and admiration. Even though Nick Jr. has completed a B.A. in philosophy and
has nearly finished an MBA by taking classes at night, his dad still puts him in his place when it comes to business.

When I go to make pickles with Horman he is experimenting with pickling mushrooms. We crack open a bucket to take a taste. Nick Sr. chokes one back. “You oughtta have a party with your friends and serve those. You won’t sell ’em,” he chides his son. “Tastes just like a Sour to me, but that’s not what a pickled mushroom is supposed to taste like.”

Nick Jr. isn’t deterred. “Kimchi is great. I’ve got an idea for a wasabi pickle and I’ve been experimenting with a curry pickle.” Inspiration for new recipes comes from customers, his dad (who recently suggested a horseradish pickle) and a vintage pickling book he enjoys turning to from time to time.

“I always ask, ‘‘Does this flavor add to what’s already there? Does it stand out? Does it stay with you? Is it crunchy?’ People don’t like a mushy pickle. Texture is the most important quality. People love the new dills when they’re just a day old. They’re crunchiest right then, and you get the natural sweetness of the cucumber.”

His New Dills are ready within a half hour of sitting in brine. Kosher Dills are another new pickle, he explains. They
sit for one to two days. It’s the Sours that he describes as “genuine pickles,” which take about four to five days to ferment, and then sit in the brine for about a month, until they drop to the bottom of the barrel.

“As they say, from the vine to the brine——if it’s from your garden you’ll have the best quality product.” He uses Heinz
cider vinegar, likening it to a baker’s use of vanilla——it intensifies the flavor that is already there. For the New Dills,
he’ll soak them in salt water for 20 minutes, which shrinks the sliced cucumber spears. They’re then drained, packed with the flesh facing out, and covered in the brine of vinegar, fresh dill, several cloves of garlic, a pinch of mustard seed and one or two dried chilies.

“In a way I had it much easier than my dad,” says Nick, referring to his smaller scale. “There are no frozen barrels, fixing leaks or dealing with Grandpa Joe. They did a 3 a.m. distribution route, too.” He breathes family lore. “The farmers markets are definitely trying——it’s a grind, but you get energy from the customers.”

And, you eat like a king. As the Sag Harbor market was winding down, a neighboring vendor came over with a bag
of sun-dried tomatoes to trade for a jar of New Dills. He likes to trade pickles for cheese and a baguette to make a brie and Cherry Pepper sandwich, which he’ll kick back with a Pilsner at the end of the day. “The spiciness and the bitter beer create dissonance,” he says.

After the rest of the Sag Harbor market has collapsed, he takes down his green and yellow hand-painted wooden
signs, the inflatable pickle that beckons customers, and loads the now-empty buckets into the bed of his Plymouth
minivan. On the drive back to Glen Cove he quotes Henry James, and philosophizes about the phenomenology of perception and bodily existence——he speaks as though he were around the seminar table at a liberal arts college, relating his points back to the pickling business every time.

Just as Horman will put up this summer’s tomatoes to save them for a later date, he’s preserving the family business by
adapting it to the changing times.

“You want to have the proclivity, that fulfillment——it’s a cycle, not a fix.” As much as tradition draws him to his work, it’s the act of making an honest product and delivering it to market that wakes him up at 4 a.m.

Jeanne Hodesh writes from Brooklyn where she publishes the weekly e-newsletter, Local Gourmands.

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Jeanne Hodesh is a Brooklyn-based writer, eater, Greenmarket regular, and home cook. She grew up in the kitchen of her parent’s bed and breakfast on the Penobscot Bay in Maine where she squeezed fresh orange juice and fell in love with the rhythm of restaurants. An only child who used to amuse herself by telling tales, she always knew she wanted to write. She studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and upon graduation dove into the media-happy town that is New York City. After a year working for an art magazine company she realized people in the food industry have much more fun and always know where the parties are. She has written for Saveur, Edible Brooklyn, Edible Manhattan, Edilble East End, and Time Out New York. She started the e-newsletter Local Gourmands in the winter of 2008.