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Essay: My afternoons working at the pickle factory

Pickles from Stern's Pickle Products of Farmingdale, probably

Pickles from Stern's Pickle Products of Farmingdale, probably from the 1980s, in a photo by Barbara Stern Burstin, granddaughter of the company's founder. Credit: Barbara Stern Burstin

When I drive north on Melville Road in Farmingdale, I sometimes look toward the left and think back six decades to the site of one of my first jobs as a teenager — working at a pickle factory.

At the site today of well-kept homes near Powell Place stood Stern’s Pickle Works, which supplied restaurants, markets and hotels from the 1890s to about 1985.

The factory, also known as Stern’s Pickle Products, was one of the three big attractions of Farmingdale in the mid-1950s, along with the City of Glass greenhouse nursery, and the Long Island Agricultural and Technical Institute, now Farmingdale State College. Many homes nearby took in student boarders because the “aggie school” had no dorms.

The pickle works stood behind a grassy oval surrounded by large pine trees. Boys played ball and other games there. We were never chased away.

My parents were great friends with the Stern family, and we lived within a short walk. During my seventh-grade year, I screwed up my courage and went to Stern’s to ask for a job after school. I got one working in the back as a laborer and apprentice to cooper Steve Moaner, a Polish craftsman. His English was limited and he’d speak to me in Polish. All I remember now is “Podaj mi młotek.” (“Hand me the hammer.”)

In making barrels, Steve would go through a pile of wooden staves, carefully examining each and cutting it to size. He had few tools: a draw knife, a cooper’s hammer and assorted small chisels.

After school, I’d change clothes and report to the back of the factory to open crates of cabbage heads. I would cut each cabbage with a cleaver and feed the pieces into a chute, turning a hand crank to shred them. It was deadly boring, and after a short time, I’d sing to myself. By a happy coincidence, the Mikado song from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta perfectly fit the rhythm of chopping cabbage.

“My object all sublime,” (Chop!)

“I shall achieve in time,” (Chop, chop!)

“To let the punishment fit the crime!” (Chop!)

“The punishment fit the crime!” (Chop, chop!)

You get the idea. I’m not so sure Steve understood my singing or even liked it. He had his dour moments.

Steve would roll a new 55-gallon barrel to me. With a wooden pitchfork, I threw in the shredded cabbage and added the “secret” brine of cider, vinegar, water, salt and caraway seeds. I forget the exact proportions of the recipe, which is just as well. Steve would cap the barrel, and the two of us would store it in the back of the factory.

I was paid 75 cents an hour in cash — and all the sauerkraut I could carry home. (My dad munched on it at night.)

Clearly, my pickle-factory job was not the start of a career, and I’ve yet to put it on my resume.

Reader Fred Marks lives in Wantagh.