Called to “do the pickle thing”

Louisiana man trades comfort for brine

Alvin Ray with a fellow Tiger/ Provided
Alvin Ray with a fellow Tiger/ Provided
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Growing up, I hated pickles.

I would have told you they were my least favorite food. Once, at a picnic after our dance recital, my friend Sarah said she was going to get us a plate of chips. When she came back with pickle chips, my sense of betrayal was so strong that I feel it (unfairly) to this day.

Then, I moved to Jordan, where a chicken shawarma sandwich is basically worthless without thinly sliced, pickled cucumbers. I was a convert—and realized my issue was with dill, somehow the only type of pickle I ever had until age 22.

Still, I don’t reach for pickles. I don’t make them or buy them or ever crave them. Then, I tried Alvin Ray’s at the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival last April.

Alvin Ray’s Bayou Best pickles are sweet, tangy, a little spicy, then sweet again. The brine is thick, almost syrupy, with bits of seasoning that settle near the bottom. The label says ‘shake and taste’ for a reason.

When I met Ray at the strawberry festival, he told me he’d created a “new variety of pickle.” It’s not a dill, not a bread-and-butter, “but it leans toward bread-and-butter with a Cajun twist,” he said. I bought a jar and tried to figure out the flavors for weeks, saving the brine long after the pickles were gone for martinis, marinated chicken, and other dishes.

After begging Ray for the recipe, he conceded that there are banana peppers, jalapeno, garlic, and “so much more going on.” He wouldn’t give up more than that. He did tell me that the recipe for the pickles sold in stores is not the original.

Alvin Ray’s promotional material

“The original was so much like a drug of addiction that I’ve heard of people fighting over them,” he said. “They would hide it in their closet. In Tennessee, I got a phone call saying someone broke into their house and the only thing stolen was the pickles.”

Ray grew up in a cooking family in Gonzales, where he learned all the traditional Cajun dishes and developed a love of cooking. He held jobs as a process operator in a plant, as a welder, in offshore drilling, but was never satisfied. By the time he was in his 50s he was working as head of maintenance for a diocese and pretty happy, but suddenly had a desire to make pickles.

“I felt like these ingredients got in my head and I couldn’t shake it,” he said.

About a decade ago, he started testing recipes, making tweaks, working in his kitchen until the early morning hours.

“The more that I did on this recipe, it was like God was saying, ‘No, this is what I want you to do.’ I’m like, ‘Golly, for once I’m comfortable in my life!’,” he said. “They offered me like four raises to stay at my job, but I just couldn’t stay. I had to do the pickle thing.”

After selling $900 worth of pickles on his first Saturday at a farmer’s market, he knew he’d made the right choice.

He applied to LSU’s food incubator program, which was new at the time. The program, now called FOODii, helps small food businesses create ingredient and nutritional labels, get health department permits, develop shelf-stable recipes, test and market products, and get into stores, and more. Entrepreneurs can rent FOODii’s facilities to make their products and consult with the university’s small business center on business plans.  

“It’s a really great feeling whenever we see these companies out in the grocery store, because for a lot of them it’s their dream,” said Ashley Gutierrez, assistant director of FOODii.

Hanley’s salad dressings, Tre’s Street Sauce, and Swamp Dragon Hot Sauce are all FOODii alums widely sold across Louisiana and neighboring states.

Ray added a mild and hot version of his pickle at the incubator and changed his original recipe from the addictive version to lower costs.

“I would have had to bootleg the stuff, it was so expensive to make,” he said.

He made thousands of jars of pickles during his two years at LSU. Now, he uses his own production facility and makes about 40,000 jars per month, sold in 700 stores in five states, plus does a decent amount of online sales.

Ray has no plans to retire. In fact, he hopes to break into catering, and is thinking about adding to new items to his product line, such as pickle relish, pickled jalapenos, and maybe even a dill pickle.

I might have to give in and try it.

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