Tasting Pickles for the Good Food Awards

I made a day trip to San Francisco on Sunday for the Good Food Awards, a project I knew little about beyond what the website told me: The contest celebrates American-made commercial foods that are tasty, free of artificial ingredients, and crafted from produce that’s grown locally with a commitment to environmental and social responsibility. I was to be a judge in the Good Food Awards Blind Tastings.

pickles for tastingThe project is now in its fourth year, I learned. This year it attracted a total of 1,450 entries, from all fifty states. There must have been hundreds of us judges, divided among sections for beer, spirits, cheese, chocolate, confections, charcuterie, pickles, sweet preserves, and oils. I was a pickle judge. Pictured here are the pickles we tasted, coded for identification and divided into groups by region.

Some of my fellow pickle judges. At right is Brenda Crowe, of Olympic Provisions, Portland.
Some of my fellow pickle judges. At right is Brenda Crow, of Olympic Provisions, Portland.

Although we spent about six hours tasting pickles, none of us got to taste them all. In the morning groups of judged selected finalists for each region, and in the afternoon everyone rated all the finalists for all the regions.

I don’t know which pickles were the top scorers, but for me there were some clear standouts. They included a fermented bean relish; a smoky onion relish; kraut with a bit of seaweed added; cabbage kimchi made of leaf stems only, in a thick pepper paste rather than a brine; paper-thin bread-and-butters that were neither too sweet nor spicy and that curled beautifully on the plate; and a cumin-flavored mixed pickle in which the colorful vegetables were perfectly cut into little cubes. I look forward to learning which pickles win awards and, especially, who made them.

Chris Forbes and Todd Champagne, who organized and led the pickle section.
Chris Forbes and Todd Champagne, who organized and led the pickle section.

Most gratifying for me was meeting among the judges professional picklers who got their start with help from The Joy of Pickling. For example, Dan Rosenberg and Addie Rose Holland have a company called Real Pickles, which now employs fourteen people and sells fermented pickles through 350 stores in the Northeast. Todd and Jordan Champagne run Happy Girl Kitchen, a business in Pacific Grove, California, that manufactures pickles and sweet preserves, offers preserving workshops, and operates a café. I loved hearing the stories of pickling and preserving entrepreneurs whom I’ve unwittingly advised over the years.

Are you a pro pickler who doesn’t yet know about the Good Food Awards? If so, I encourage you to enter the competition next year. I saw room for improvement in various areas: There was a general overuse of hot pepper, in the form of dry powder or flakes. I tasted no pickled whole peppers and no fully cured sauerkraut. A few brined pickles were at the height of fermentation; they bubbled out of their jars. The fermented cucumbers were almost all oversized, and I tasted nothing you could call a gherkin or cornichon. There were no fermented cucumbers from the Northeast, whence fermented cukes entered American culinary tradition. Yet Northeasterners entered the only pickled okra I tasted. Where were the Southern okra pickles?

I have no doubt that the Good Food Awards will attract many more outstanding entries next year. I hope that some of my blog readers will be among the contestants.