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Meet America's First 'Master Pickler'

Olympia Provisions built its name on charcuterie, but Joe Vanaman has carved out its pickle department, brining just about everything he can get his hands on.
Photos by David L. Reamer.

In 2014, my Detroit pickle empire Perkins Pickles had the opportunity to start distributing on the West Coast, so I set out on a brine-scouting trip between Portland and Los Angeles. During the pickle safari, I tasted the work of Olympia Provisions' Master Pickler Joe Vanaman. His pickles were unquestionably the trip's best, and it's my opinion that they stack up against anything ever pulled from a pickle barrel.

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Olympia built its name on charcuterie, but Vanaman carved out the pickle department in the restaurant's old 600-square-foot salami studio where owner/salumist Eli Cairo cured the company's first meats. Now Vanaman brines everything from full sour dills to garlic scapes to plums to rhubarb to radishes.

Once only available on Olympia' s website or plates, Vanaman and the company's sales team that's turning the charcuterie into a national brand are pushing the pickles onto store shelves. Jars are already available throughout the Pacific Northwest and New York City, and 2016 is shaping up to be a banner year for Vanaman's pickle department.

With the Perkins Pickles empire having receded, I now turn to Olympia for pickles, and I and recently caught up with Vanaman to discuss the joy of pickling.

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MUNCHIES: I don't know of any other master picklers in the US. There are people who own pickle companies, but is there anyone else who can claim the same title? Joey Vanaman: It was given to me by the owners. When they were revamping the website, they wanted to include me because I had started my own department, and that's what they came up with. I thought it was hilarious, but no one really refers to me as that. People either call me "Joey Pickles," or just "Pickles."

A lot of people call me just "Pickles" a lot, too! [laughs] I haven't found any other master picklers. There are certainly other pickle companies just doing pickles, but it's definitely a unique situation, so I feel lucky. It's a lot of work, though, as you know.

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Yes, it is. More than one would think. Tell me about the path to becoming a master pickler. Did you know as a small child that a future in pickles awaited? I was lucky enough to have two awesome Italian grandmothers cooking delicious food all the time, and my grandma on my dad's side did preserving and pickles. There were summers where I would hang out with her for weeks and make raviolis, pasta sauce, canned pickled eggs, pickled beets. That was my first exposure to pickles—lining the basement with this stuff to preserve for the winter.

The ultimate snack for me was a pickled egg, but I never dreamed that I would have this. I definitely fell into it.

When I was a kid, I used to get five-gallon jugs of pickles for my birthday. That was my favorite snack as well, but I also never imagined a pickle company. Nobody does.

This is my own possibly totally inaccurate analysis, but the three cities that I've found that have the most pickle companies are New York City, Detroit, and Portland. NYC is NYC, and Michigan grows the most pickling cucumbers of any state, but I'm can't really figure out why there are so many pickle companies in Portland. Do you have a theory on why Portland loves its brine? Pickles are kind of trendy right now. We just named our minor league baseball team the Portland Pickles, and that says it all—pickles are cool! People out here like to make their own everything … and pickling is a fun thing to do. There's a farmers market in every neighborhood during the growing season, so I think it's the availability of amazing, beautiful food that inspires people to cook. And it's a food town.

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How frequently do people bring up that goddamn Portlandia "Pickle That" skit to you? Yeah, that's pretty annoying. [laughs]

I like that you pickle and sell celery. Not many people jar that, and it's an underrated pickling vegetable. It really absorbs the flavors and maintains its crunchiness. Aside from that, what are some of your favorite pickling vegetables and why? Celery is the sleeper pickle. People write it off because, 'Oh, it's bitter and weird.' But I definitely had people tell me 'You changed my view on celery.' And that recipe is rad. It's sweet, it's got honey, Champagne vinegar, but a lot of red pepper chili flake and black peppercorn, so it's hot and sweet.

I've got about 40 recipes that are dialed in and I do throughout the season, and I have the Pickle of the Month Club, which is fun. I do some of the standards, beets, red onion, cauliflower, fennel, asparagus, carrots, bread and butter relish, basil beans.

Why no cucumbers? I did some market research and realized the market [is] flooded [with] cucumber pickles. I love them, I make them, but I don't sell them in jars.

You use a lot of white wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar. Do you prefer that over white distilled, which is common? I use red wine, white wine, apple cider, and in the celery I mix some Champagne vinegar in. Distilled white is great because it's inexpensive, but the wine vinegars have a nice flavor. The bread and butter use apple cider, so it has a sweetness that complements the flavor. I use Four Monks brand. White wine vinegar is used the most, but I like to mix it up because each has something different to offer for different vegetables.

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Another thing I use is straight white wine. The curried cauliflower is a typical pickle, but I think the white wine and fresh ginger gives it a brightness.

You mostly do vinegar-brined pickles instead lacto-fermented. Do you prefer vinegar brine over lacto-fermentation, which has been all the rage in recent years? The vinegar pickles are really good with charcuterie because they have a sharp acid. The acidity cuts through the fat. All Olympia's products are made with beautiful, beautiful pork fat, so the pickles' job is to cut through that fat, and they complement each other.

It also has to do with speed. I can boil the brine, pour it over the vegetables, and they're done in two days instead of two to three weeks. And a lot of it also has to do with space. Right now I have a hundred pounds of sauerkraut fermenting, and there's only so much space in my fermentation room.

It's kind of like cheese or beer— you've got to wait. It is a lovely, wonderful thing to ferment food, but for speed and turnover, vinegar is the way to go.

How do you develop your recipes? I'm inspired by what I can get my hands on, what's in season. I'll go through old books, find things that work, tweak them … or find super-old techniques, ways of doing things, then modernizing and adjusting. I've got certain spices I prefer and things that work, like taking asparagus and putting in allspice, nutmeg, and a little lemon peel.

I try to make pickles that have bold flavors that complement our food. Like my bread and butter zucchini—I try not to make it too sweet because it's going on a ham sandwich and the ham is already sweet. So I wanted to have more of a savory mustard flavor going on. But it depends on what I'm doing, what vegetable I'm working with. I treat them all different.

Thanks for speaking with me.