Tangy brush with celebrity lingers on palate

My love of pickles began when I was quite small— especially of the sweet pickles that have baby onions and bits of cauliflower in the jar. We grew many vegetables in the garden on our farm. Cucumbers liked the heavy clay soil of our upper farm and produced prolifically each year. We seemed to have a continual collection of crocks full of vinegar and cucumbers as they turned themselves into pickles. Later most of them were put into jars stacked neatly on the cellar shelves.

Fast forward to when we had our first boy and my mother lived with us. Once a week we three would drive to the grocery store in St. Catharines for our weekly shopping. One time I saw the rows of pickle jars and noticed some that looked just like mother’s pickles that I remembered — cucumber pieces, baby onions and cauliflower. The trade name was “Bicks.” Of course, I bought a bottle and we had them for lunch with our toasted cheese sandwiches. It was a real treat. From then on Bicks pickles were eaten at our house.

Enter another character in this tale. It’s name is Happenstance. It is now the 1980s, after our youngest son is married and living in British Columbia as a Mountie. His wife, Nancy, knew a young man, Robert Bick, who was interested in starting a business making fruit leather. It was a new venture in Canada in that decade, and because fruit was readily available in B.C., he wanted to pursue this idea.

“My husband has a friend in the Niagara Peninsula who has a large fruit farm and has also started a fruit leather business and is doing quite well,” Nancy said.

“Could I contact him through you?” he asked.

“Of course. I’ll set that up for you.”

So between our son and ourselves we made arrangements for them to visit John Thwaites, on his farm in rural Niagara-on-the-Lake. They would rent a car and drive to our place, where we would then take them a few miles to Thwaites’ farm to introduce them. Fruit leather is a snack food that is easily carried in pockets for hikers, fishermen, farmers and for children’s snacks. The base fruit can be applesauce. Then other fruits can be added such as any berry, cherries, strawberries, grapes, blueberries, etc. It is cooked together, dried well, then rolled thin and cut into squares to make a healthy snack.

The appointed day came and we saw three people, not one, exit the car and come to the door.

“Hello. I hope you were expecting us,” he said. “This is my mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Bick.”

We shook hands and ushered them inside. Of course my mind was whirling.

Bick? Bick’s pickles? Surely not a coincidence! But over coffee I had to ask them.

“Yes, that’s us.” Mr. Bick answered. “We started a small business years ago in our own back kitchen with our own cucumbers and ingredients. As the business grew, we fixed the barn into a bigger and better workplace. More stores wanted a steady supply, so we had to hire more people. It felt so satisfying to have a good product but we could see that the two of us, plus those we hired, were not enough to handle the workload. After a few more years we accepted a fair offer from Robin Hood Company, and our only stipulation was that they keep the trade name Bick’s.”

Later the business was bought by the J.M Smuckers Company, who sold 41 products and was the number-one brand in Canada. The products are comprised of pickles, relishes and specialties.

“Oh, we are so glad to meet you both. We had no idea that Bick was an actual family name. We’ve been eating your pickles for many years.”

We spent a lovely hour over coffee, comparing farming in Ontario and British Columbia. We then had them follow our car the two miles to John Thwaites’ farm, where we left them to discuss the business of fruit leather. I do not know whether Robert Bick ever developed his fruit leather business, but it was an interesting experience for us to meet them. It was yet another happenstance in my life.

Walter Bick died Monday, October 17, 2011, aged 94. Established in 1951, this is the 70th year that the family’s pickles have been on the market. I think of Mr. and Mrs. Bick whenever I take the Bick’s jar from the refrigerator and bite into that crunchy pickle. The Bicks were real people, not just a trade name.