by Les McGehee • Photography by Alison Narro
There’s a highway of flowcharts scrawled with handwritten notes and a cascading waterfall of spreadsheets thumbtacked to the bedroom walls of 12-year-old Sam Addison. The year is 1998, yet instead of Smashing Pumpkins or Korn posters, Addison has dedicated the space in his room to something a little different. Welcome to the Lair of Pickling Nerd-dom.
It was during this time that young Addison was pickling regularly with his mom, Ann, and grandma Nannie in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Amherst, Virginia. “I had been pickling with them for as long as I can remember,” he says. By the age of 12, Addison had become obsessed. He had respectfully moved beyond the sweet-hot, heat-processed pickle style he was raised with to a style he would later perfect: cold-pack pickling. And his fixation manifested on those myriad flowcharts and spreadsheets, where each idea, each tweak, each brine variation and each batch’s results were methodically documented.
Addison was making pickles multiple times a year—giving jars as gifts—and recording every nuance and bit of feedback along the way until he finally achieved what can now only be called his pickling opus. Flash forward to 2011, and Addison lands in Austin with his then-girlfriend, Theresa. He came to town to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, but since the pickling bug was still biting, he decided to start a small business on the side and peddle his pickles at a few local farmers markets. To pay for the initial startup, he sold his beloved Hammond XK3 rock organ to a church for $2,300; his dad also chipped in a little. And he soon discovered the welcoming, generous embrace of our city’s tight artisan food community by sharing kitchen space at the South Congress complex that houses local heroes Sisters SASS, Oh Kimchi and Confituras. Pogue Mahone Pickles was off and running, and people started talking.
Who was talking? Anyone who knows pickles. Even as a wee startup, Pogue Mahone won a coveted national Good Food Award in 2013 for its Jalapeño Mint pickles. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the few companies—from hundreds of entrants in their category each year—to win a Good Food Award three times in a row. In 2014, it was Pogue Mahone’s Fresh Dill & Garlic pickles that wowed judges and in 2015, it was Texas Sweet Heat.
These prestigious awards brought Pogue Mahone to the attention of our fine local food purveyors, and now the pickles can be found at Whole Foods Market, Wheatsville Food Co-op, Fresh Plus, and many smaller neighborhood markets as well as farmers markets across Austin. Addison makes three recipes year-round (Texas Sweet Heat, Fresh Dill & Garlic and Bread & Butter Deluxe) and limited varieties during each season (Jalapeño Mint in spring, Serrano Lime in summer and Ginger Habanero in winter). He says one of the fastest-growing new products available for restaurants is bulk buckets of large-cut pickles called Big Fat Halves.
For centuries, pickling and jarring have been essential to extending the life of food and preventing waste, and much of this process has been accomplished through heat-sealing containers. Because big, hot-pack pickle companies often jar only twice per year, the pickles lose texture and freshness, but they gain a long, unrefrigerated shelf life. Instead of going this route, Addison says his secrets are the perfected cold-pack process and the freshness of his produce. Half of the year, he gets cucumbers grown especially for him in Fredericksburg; for the colder months, he brings in cucumbers from California. “We make pickles every day of every week,” he says. The goal is to get the cucumbers from harvest to jar in 48 hours, if possible, then cold-age them for 10 days before they go to market. “It’s all very fast,” says Addison. “We have a policy of pulling them from the shelves if they hit ninety days, yet we haven’t had any products hit ninety days! I’m obsessed with creating the best of what I look for in a pickle: crispy and super-fresh deliciousness.” Fans seem to agree.
But what about that name “Pogue Mahone?” What does it mean? “Years ago, I was visiting my sister in Charleston, South Carolina, who’s married to an Irish surgeon,” Addison says with a wry smile. “I had brought some pickles, and he and I were…heavily under the influence of good Irish whiskey. He ate one of the pickles and said, ‘These are the best damned pickles in the world. Anyone who disagrees can pogue mahone (kiss my arse)!’ I told him that if I ever started a pickle company, that would HAVE to be the name!”