On a humid Saturday morning at the Brooklyn Greenmarket, Rick Field straddles a stool behind pyramids of jars. As his sign reveals, these are Rick’s Picks, and it’s clear they are not your average deli dills. Shoppers congregate by his stall, poking for samples of Rick’s spicy Mean Bean green beans and zesty Kool Gherk cukes. A vintage Potato Head-style pickle doll and an olive-tone leather speaker case display Rick’s love of pickle paraphernalia. The stand’s green motif borders on obsession.
“Hey, you’re the pickle guy,” a woman exclaims. “I saw you on Martha Stewart!”
“That’s me,” Rick responds with a concoction of enthusiasm and sarcasm (much like the bittersweet tang of his Picks).
A moment later, he stands up clutching an open book: 101 Pickle Jokes. “What’s green and shoots below par in golf?” he asks. “Jack Picklaus.”
The yuk-yuk joke isn’t particularly striking. It’s the aura of Rick: a desire to please people, to entertain, to make each customer feel special. At times bouts of energy overtake him and he turns on music or mends the ever-collapsing pickle Potato Head doll — gestures that ensure the customers’ happiness and the ambiance of the pickle home.
His appearance is an ode to unconventional charm. From the pickle-tone slip-on Crocs to his dirt-streaked cargos, all the way to his feather-adorned fedora that covers tufts of gray-streaked hair, Rick clearly sings to his own tune. It’s not every day a Yale alumnus and prep-school grad (he went to Phillips Academy) pickles for a living.
Pickles are not a newfound obsession. They are a part of Rick’s history. Having grown up in Massachusetts and Vermont, Rick has fond memories of pickling as a child. His mother’s recipe — a classic mix of dill, garlic, and peppercorn — would later provide him with the foundation for his more exotic tangs. Culinary hobbies aside, Rick comes from a family of academics. His father and grandfather taught at Harvard, and it wasn’t a surprise that Rick went to Yale.
Spending all four years in Saybrook housing, Rick didn’t cook much at Yale, though he did satisfy his food fix in New Haven’s beloved restaurants. He lists Yankee Doodle, Yorkside, and Naples Pizza as favorites. En route to visit family in Vermont, he still indulges in Greek salads with extra olives and raw onions at Yorkside. He also loves the “brilliant simplicity” of a Yankee Doodle burger. “It is a triumph of civilization,” he says. “Un-fucking-believably good.”
Of course, New Haven offered Rick more than just food. “I loved Yale,” he declares. “It was a place where opportunities were maximized and responsibilities were minimized.” Rick majored in English and says he enjoyed academics but wishes he had paid more attention in class. His favorite novel, to this day, is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.
After graduating in 1985, Rick held television jobs at VH1, Comedy Central, and NOW with Bill Moyers until he left the industry in 2001. He had been experimenting with recipes in his Brooklyn apartment since 1997, but after parting from TV, Rick immersed himself in the brine. “I was just toying around with childhood recipes and my business just branched from there,” he explains.
It began with simple modifications of his mother’s recipe — cucumbers and string beans — but suddenly Rick felt he had caught wind (or should we say waft) of a trend. The artisanal food movement was in full force in the part-bohemian, part-sophisticate culture of New York’s Lower East Side. A desire for innovation, Rick believes, coincided with a longing for waning traditions, and Rick began experimenting in his apartment with this ideology in mind. Pickles, Rick says, have an element of the past about them — something uniquely nostalgic. He believes the pickling renaissance came about because pickling recalls ancestral experiences. “It is a response to the dislocation we feel in a world consumed by Internet and cell phones,” he says.
Conjuring images of childhood pickling experiences, some customers mention their own ancestral narratives. As one of the oldest methods of preserving food, pickles warrant several mentions in the Bible as well as alleged praise from Aristotle, Cleopatra, and Napoleon. In fact, in terms of food history, pickling constitutes the divine: fermentation can transform the poisonous into something edible and delectable. Putting a modern spin on an antiquated tradition, Rick resurrects the centuries-old ritual of preserving. As Rick puts it, “Pickling is the new knitting.”
Although his high-end pickles are trendy, Rick promises never to compromise his philosophy for a pickle fortune. Rick’s Picks are au naturale. Vowing never to stray from sustainable food ideals, Rick buys his materials from local farmers. “It’s not always easy — or cost effective — but it adds to the value in a different way,” he says. The New York City Greenmarket director, Michael Hurwitz, praises Rick for his commitment to the local economy, which earns him the right to peddle his pickles in the elite market.
Equally important is Rick’s passion for creative flavors. His taste buds surely have matured — while he once preferred the traditional dill, he now pickles almost anything. (Once, he even tried eggs. “Those weren’t very good,” he recalls with a look of disgust.) Phat Beets are the bestseller. In a pamphlet he hands out to every customer, Rick suggests serving them “with soft goat cheese on a baguette, crowned with a blueberry… a red, white and blue treat.” Another favorite, the Windy City Wasabeans — green beans in soy wasabi brine — took home best-in-show from the Rosendale, N.Y. International Pickle Festival three years in a row. Rick also sells Pepi Pep Peps (roasted peppers), Smokra (an okra paprika combo), and Bee ‘n’ Beez (a take on the bread-and-butter pickle, without refined sugar).
Despite his fame in the international pickle world, Rick cringes at the word “gourmet,” with its connotations of wealth. He prefers “artisan,” a more democratic term. “Foodie” is another word that he leaves out of his vocabulary, opting for the label “food focus people” instead.
One word you might not hear Rick say is “business,” but he is an entrepreneur. Rick’s Picks is a small business, and he struggles accordingly, working to balance manufacturing and marketing. Expansion through his website, www.rickspicksnyc.com, is at the top of his agenda. But what he loves most is being around people. He schmoozes with customers, sells a few jars and signs them up for the pickle mailing list. Everyone leaves with a greater knowledge of pickle cuisine. “Make sure you use the brine, and drizzle it over a sharp cheddar or use it as a salad dressing,” he shouts. Rick’s sincerity, one would imagine, is poured into every jar.
These days, as Rick strives to expand Rick’s Picks beyond its current vendors (Whole Foods being the best known), business trumps pleasure. He feels as though he’s “in the middle of a really long journey.” As for his goals, he doesn’t ask for much. “A two hour nap on a weekday would be great,” he admits with a half-serious grin.
Suddenly, Rick pauses to pick up a spray bottle. (A sign on the table supports a “free mist policy.”) He sprays a neighboring vendor. “We have each other’s backs here,” he tells me, and he spritzes my face and asks, “Better?” as the cool water relieves the heat. By the end of our “hang-out” — for Rick, “interview” sounds far too formal — we were sharing sharp cheddar and a vendor’s special fresh-squeezed grape juice.
Rick’s carefree nature has lasting impressions. According to my roommate, a few days after my hang-out with Rick, I shot up from a deep sleep and exclaimed, “Where is the jar of pickles!” Rick, I imagine, would explain this as my unconscious connection to ancestral traditions — a longing for that centuries-old ritual.