by Tracy Davis
photographs by Jillian Clark
Raleigh native Louis Wooten has been a bread-and-butter pickle fan since childhood. About 20 years ago, when he was in his early 30s, he decided to make some for himself. His mother fished through her recipe box for her friend Patsy Gilliam’s bread-and-butter pickles recipe, circa 1959, and Wooten got to work. He made a big batch, kept some, gave some away, and realized that he was on to something. “The proof is in the jar,” he says. “They are just darn good pickles you can’t get anywhere else.”
Wooten’s friends Lockhart Taylor, Bill Barrett, and Tony Landi agreed. “Louis gave me a jar and I thought they were amazing,” Barrett recalls. He likes their crunch, but thinks the real “it factor” is their versatility: “They complement a lot of different foods … burgers, dogs, BBQ, eggs, all the tastes of summer.” So a few years later, when Wooten mentioned that he’d like to make a whole lot more pickles, Barrett and Taylor agreed to help out. “We were tricked into joining,” Barrett claims. That was 1998. Landi became part of the crew a few years later.
The tradition: Every summer, during a single vinegar-soaked day, the four make some 20-odd cases of bread-and-butter pickles to give to friends and family at Christmas. The original recipe makes about 18 pint jars; the way they do it yields 250 jars or more.
It’s a production that has to be seen to be believed, one that begins before the actual day of pickling, when ingredients are gathered: 90-plus pounds of sugar, 8 gallons of apple cider vinegar, spices, pickling salt, and massive quantities of produce ordered from Blue Sky Farms. It arrives in bulk: seven bushels of cucumbers (about 350 pounds), three bushels of green peppers, 50 pounds of onions, 10 pounds of jalapeños.
Of equal importance, because (as you may have suspected) this yearly endeavor isn’t just about pickles: tunes, too. And a lot of beer.
This year, Walter was invited along for the ride.
June 20, 2015
After breakfast at Finch’s Restaurant on Peace Street, the crew walks next-door to a catering kitchen which has been loaned to them for the day by Barrett’s sister-in-law Coleen Speakes, who owns PoshNosh catering. Produce is pulled from boxes and pronounced “excellent, as usual.” Barrett and Taylor start running cukes through food processors, slicing them into thin circles; Wooten’s on onions, and Landi’s working through the “jalas.”
There’s a tailgate vibe; the music’s on, jokes and beer are already flowing. Hank Williams Jr.’s Family Tradition inspires the first of the day’s many sing-alongs: “So tell me, Hank, whyyyyyy do you drink?”
Within minutes, they’re blinking back tears. The onion and jala fumes are fierce. It could be worse: “That year we thought of using gloves for the jalapeños was a major leap forward,” Barrett says. “Which reminds me,” says Wooten: “I am obligated to say, that Sally (his wife) says it would be better to have less of the jalapeños this year.”
The consensus response: Those who make the pickles make the decisions.
Wooten finishes the onions and joins Taylor on green peppers. Nobody likes the green peppers. There’s no quick way to cut them up. Taylor proposes that he core and seed them, then Wooten can slice and “just blaze on through.” But they can’t agree as to the amount of “that bitter white stuff” to leave inside. “We’ve got a hundred pounds of sugar,” Wooten says. “I’m not worried.”
Taylor shakes his head and mutters something (barely audible, definitely unprintable) about taking a stand for quality control. In the background: The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter – this one, they turn up.
There’s constant banter and conversation, ranging wide – families, job stuff, the kids, life in general. These guys go way back. They have a spirited discussion of how best to handle their inevitable upcoming Walter pickle-story fame. Big plans are made, then discarded. Pickle stardom will not change them, they resolve; unlike other celebrities, they’ll remain grounded, true to their roots. Although they wonder: Does The Press have insight into how best to spin a Walter story into a calendar deal? She does not.
When the last of the produce is chopped, salted, and back in the coolers, the group wheels all of it into a walk-in industrial cooler. The cold and salt will make the produce “sweat,” removing excess water. With hours to kill while the produce does its thing, they walk over to Tyler’s Taproom for lunch and a few games of pool. Also, beer. In the early days, they did everything in their homes, taking over kitchens and porches. However, says Landi, “the wives did not like this.” Taylor nods his agreement. “They were frightened.”
Pickles are happening. In batches, some with jalapeños and some without, salted cucumbers, peppers, and onions are poured into industrial steam pans to cook along with celery seed, turmeric, cloves, mustard seed, and a syrupy mixture of sugar and vinegar. When they’re scalded, but (importantly!) before they boil, the pickles are ready. Then they’re ladled into pots and carted over to the other side of the room, where freshly washed jars await.
At this point, the guys are in the zone. Landi ladles pickles into jars, Taylor makes sure there’s enough syrup inside, puts a lid on, and gives each jar a first rinse. Barrett takes them through a second rinse, dries them, then puts them back into the flats they came in. Folk Soul Revival’s Chinatown sums it up: “Me and my baby got the whoooole thiiiing doooown.”
Meanwhile, over at the steamer, Wooten feeds in another batch of produce and monitors the mustard seed situation. Because the seed gets ladled out along with the pickles, they can’t put all of it in at the start or there won’t be enough for the last batch. But, they want that strong flavor – how much to put in, and when? “This is where the art comes in,” he says.
It’s also when the air conditioning decides to die, so it’s now 90-something degrees inside, and the beer supply is dwindling fast. Landi takes stock of the remaining veggies and cheerfully observes that they’re halfway through. His announcement is deemed “so not helpful.”
The last jar is filled, and cleanup starts. Barrett marks the jalapeño pickle jar lids with a J, though his scrawl looks more like a heart and occasionally like an O. “It’s been a long day,” he says. In another hour or so, their rides will show up. The eau-de-pickle factor guarantees a windows-down journey home and, Taylor jokes, “a spot on the couch. Or the porch.”
They’re happy with their yield. Due to some weird vegetable mystery, a set poundage of cucumbers never equates to a set amount of pickles, but this year they’ll exceed the 20-case benchmark. Their bounty will wait in basements and closets until the holidays roll around, then the jars will be prettied up with labels and bows and delivered to family and friends.
While Wooten loves all that, his favorite part of the process is something else: the schtick, schtick sounds he hears as the jars cool and lids lock tight to glass. It’s proof of a good, safe seal. “When you hear that,” he says, “you know they’re locked in. Another good batch.” And another year of friendship and camaraderie, locked in right along with the pickles.