Pickles are more than simple pieces of produce floating in flavored brine, destined to accent a larger meal. The act of fermentation transforms them, imbuing the chosen veg with health-nourishing powers we are only just beginning to understand.
“Pickles have always been a big part of my life,” Kelley Hillis, co-owner and creator of Salem’s Puckers Gourmet says. “When I was a kid, I would drive four hours to the Lower East Side and stand in a huge line to get the best pickle in the world from these big, burly guys who would just grab them out of barrels and hand them to the patiently waiting customers. It was such an amazing communal experience and so much fun. Plus, you just couldn’t get a pickle like that in upstate New York.”
But no matter how “fun” it was at the time, driving eight hours round-trip for a fermented cucumber seemed excessive, even to the devotee herself. “I started studying pickles,” she says laughing. “As a sort of hobby, I tried to re-create the iconic Lower East Side pickle. I tried thousands of recipes, tweaked them, had my friends and family try them, and slowly, over decades, perfected a handful of recipes.”
Soon, Kelley found herself branching out of the classic salt, garlic, dill and pepper-inflected Lower East Side pickle to explore the pickles of Germany, Korea, Thailand, Israel and America’s heartland.
It wasn’t just the endlessly variable taste sensation of the compact little pickle that enchanted her, though, like many fans, she also rel- ished the sweet, sour, sharp, tangy, salty, spicy, herb-tinged, crunchy, all of the above, possibilities inherent to produce that has been through the pickling process. “Pickles aren’t just delicious,” she says, “it’s the health and history found in the jar, too. Pickles are one of the healthiest foods you can eat, rich through the process of fermentation with Lactobacillus, a probiotic essential to gut health and overall nutrition because it helps you absorb vitamins and minerals in other foods when it’s present. It’s also one of the oldest ways human beings have found to preserve food naturally and safely, a process that was around for thousands of years before we even knew what bacteria were, never mind how important they are.”
The microbiome-obsessed set is focused on the gut, home to more than 100 trillion bacteria. According to studies, a gut rich in flora can aid weight loss, protect against certain forms of cancer, alleviate diges- tion issues and reduce allergy issues. People who consume probiotic- rich foods, including lacto-fermented pickles, yogurt, miso, kombucha and sourdough bread are thought, by gut-health advocates, to have superior health. Pickles produced using vinegar without the es- sential step of fermentation—while delicious—don’t have probiotics.
But even as her dedication to all things fermented bubbled in the background, Kelley’s life marched on. She went to school, married, had children (her daughter, Channa, is 17 and her son, Max, is 13), launched a successful career as a makeup artist, stylist and merchan- dising manager. It wasn’t until she broke her leg several years ago that she remembered how much she missed being at home.
“I stayed at home with the kids until they were in school,” she says. “Those weeks laid up on the couch were a boon. I realized I wanted to continue working at something I loved but stay at home. After banging my head against the wall and trying to figure out how to support a family from home, I realized the solution was in front of me this whole time.”
Kelley, like many an entrepreneur before her, realized that she could “have it all” if she could just ... start her own company.
Of course, as any small business owner knows, this is not the part of the story where Kelley snaps into a pickle and rides off giggling into the sunset on her way to the bank. This is the part where the head-banging against walls, and possibly other immovable objects, gets really painful. She took accounting and insurance classes at night, wrote a business plan, secured capital through grants and Washington County assistance programs, took on low-interest loans, charged up her fam- ily’s credit cards, submitted exacting recipes to Cornell that they tested so she could get approval to open the doors from New York State’s Department of Agriculture & Markets and the FDA. (“Selling a fermented product is complicated, so we are very much under the microscope,” Kelley explains). Her husband, Ben Hillis, was right with her, building, creating and developing the vision. They built out a commercial kitchen in her house. They recruited the children, their parents and any other family member and friend willing to be bribed with brine to lend a hand.
Seven years (and a few gray hairs) later, Kelley truly does believe she has it all, even if “all” involves 80-hour workweeks and an office she literally can’t get away from.
“Food is medicine,” Kelley says. “It’s so basic and such a simple and powerful tool that we have. The deeper I got into the food business myself, the more I looked at everything I was feeding my own children. The more I studied sourcing for my own company, the more their diets improved. I would never add food coloring when turmeric and other natural herbs and spices can add color, and there is no real need to use additives and fillers, ever.”
Kelley and Ben go even further, using local, organic, sea- sonal produce whenever possible. “In the depths of winter, we have to get some produce from the south, but whenever it’s possible, we get cabbage, habaneros and other produce lo- cally,” she says. “We live in Washington County, which is an agricultural mecca. In the summer, there’s sometimes just an hour between getting the product down the road, washing it and putting it in our American oak barrels sourced from Kentucky whiskey distilleries. In our most productive weeks, we go through 400 pounds of cabbage a week, which Ben and I hand-shred.”
While they’ve grown considerably, selling at seven farmers’ markets in the region and at restaurants and stores all over New York and even into Massachusetts, their goal is to “stay small and artisanal” enough so that they will always be able to have their hands on the product, avoid using machines and keep the business in the family. The varieties, which do rotate seasonally, include Dilly Sweet, Half Sour, Horseradish Half Sour, Fire Habanero, Full Garlic Sour, Super Krunchy Kraut, Kimchi, Pak Dong and Dilly Beans.
“I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to follow my heart and be with my kids at
home,” Kelley says. “It has refocused me as a person and has made me a better parent—and I give my kids credit for that. They’ve raised me as much as I’ve raised them.”
What’s next for Puckers, besides hopefully bringing home another big win at the annual Rosendale International Pickle Festival this fall? (They’ve won every year.) Kelley, taking another cue from her daughter, who studied in Israel this spring and is hoping to become a rabbi one day, plans to get the pickles certified as kosher. In the meantime, the Puckers Gourmet pickle remains the perfect evocation of the American dream, harboring a pupu platter of ethnic flavors, traditions and health-giving sustenance, as sweet as it is spicy.
Crisp. Refreshing. Pucker up.