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An American Pickle: How a chance meeting enhanced a cucumber farmer’s bread and butter

Illustration for article titled An American Pickle: How a chance meeting enhanced a cucumber farmer’s bread and butter
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

As the headline on an article written upon his death would read, Omar Fanning’s life “reads like fiction.” It’s a tale of transformation: A down-on-his-luck cucumber farmer would become a pickle magnate, all because of a chance encounter.

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That chance encounter happened at a church dinner in Streator, the small town in central Illinois where Fanning lived, and it would ultimately change both Fanning’s fate and the American pickle industry. Fanning would become the first person to trademark the bread and butter pickles, and in the process, he would introduce the small sweet and sour pickle slices to American grocery stores.

Omar frequently donated his bread and butter pickles to church dinners. Sometime in 1923, when Omar was 43 years old, a salesman for a large wholesale grocer happened to be a patron at one of the dinners, and he was smitten with Omar’s pickles. (Both the name of the grocer and the salesman have been lost to history.) “The salesman partook in the pickles and noticed their superior quality,” Omar’s hometown paper, The Sterling Daily Gazette, reported when it told the tale of Omar’s rise to pickle fame and fortune upon his death. “He quietly sent a jar to his company for analysis. The head office also recognized the quality of the pickles, but was unable to analyze the recipe. The man was sent back to make an offer for the recipe.”

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Sweet and sour pickle recipes—which generally call for salt, onions, white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and sugar—were nothing new, nor was the recipe Omar used, which was his mother-in-law’s. Some say the name “bread and butter” came from Omar and his wife, Cora, who, when they were struggling financially due to low cucumber sales, traded the pickles for staples like bread and butter with the local grocer. Others say the name wasn’t specific to the Fannings, but nevertheless referred to lean times: when food was scarce, the flavorful pickles sandwiched between bread and butter made for a satisfying meal.

Whatever the case, Omar didn’t sell the recipe. Instead, he took the inquiry to mean he was onto something with his pickles, and he quickly got a trademark. Omar’s trademark, which he applied for in September 1923 and was awarded in March of 1924, was for “Fanning’s Bread and Butter Pickles.”

The wholesaler, in turn, offered to purchase the entire output of Omar’s factory. Omar negotiated the price he wanted without offering a tour of his factory. And for good reason—he didn’t have one. He was making the pickles in his own kitchen, a fact he decided not to mention. Only after the deal was signed did he look at the size of the order from the wholesaler. It exceeded his home kitchen’s capacity. Not one to balk at a challenge, Omar set out to find more space. He rented a tract of land to grow more cucumbers. The land had a schoolhouse on one end of it, so he approached the school directors and struck a deal so he could make the pickles inside the school.

By November 1924, when Omar visited Sterling, the Daily Gazette referred to him as “one of the former Sterling boys who has made good in other places,” lauding his pickle endeavor as a side project that had become “a big business.” Such a big business, in fact, that not long after striking the schoolhouse deal, Omar couldn’t keep up with demand. In 1927, he sold the patent trademark to New Jersey-based CPC International Inc. (now known as Best Foods), which mass produced Fanning’s Bread and Butter Pickles and eventually renamed the brand Mrs. Fanning’s Bread and Butter Pickles. (Mrs. Fanning’s are now sold by B&G Foods.)

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The “Mrs.” in this case may be paying homage to Cora Fanning (or perhaps it was a way to make the product sound more domestic). Cora was a rarity in her own right: she was a newspaper editor at The Streator Independent Times at a time when women were severely underrepresented in journalism, let alone in editorships.

Cora wouldn’t remain editor at The Streator Independent Times forever; according to the report about Omar’s 1924 visit to town, she was set to retire the following year, and records show the paper itself was discontinued in 1927.

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Omar would have been 48 years old in 1927 when he sold the pickle business. He didn’t quite hang up his hat right away, though. He worked first as a manager for Ford Motor Company and then as the owner of a floral shop. Omar and Cora would eventually relocate to Inglewood, California, with their pickle money where they would lead “more or less a retired life,” according to The Independent Times.

Not much information exists about the couple in their older years, though an obituary for Omar indicates they didn’t have children and were together until Omar’s death in 1945. A newspaper story about their wedding, however, paints a picture of a whimsical pair that was up for fun. That report, printed in 1907, says that as Omar and Cora’s friends prepared to send them off from their wedding reception in a shower of rice and “a choice collection of old shoes,” the couple played a prank on their guest list.

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“While their guests were getting their ammunition ready, the bride and groom slipped out the rear door and climbed into the hack waiting in the alley,” the report says. They were whisked away to change their clothes and wait to depart by train to their honeymoon in Chicago. “In the meantime, the baffled four hundred guests were turning the town upside down in an effort to find the missing pair.”

Perhaps they were simply running from the shower of old shoes, but nevertheless, it stands to reason that the same couple who would delight in a disappearing act at their own wedding would be of flexible enough spirit to fake factory space, first in their kitchen, and then in a schoolhouse.

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Pickle lovers can be glad they did. It was that initial mass production that let the bread and butter pickle reach its wide audience. Today, the cucumbers pickled in a unique blend of sour and sweet are a staple in barbecue spreads and relish bars alike.

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