Inver Grove Heights man preserves prized-pickle title at state fair

Keith Joyce, an Inver Grove Heights man who has dominated the "Best Dill Pickle" category in Gedney's competition at the Minnesota State Fair the two year's he's entered his recipe, 2007 and 2014, holds his blue ribbon while talking to Kevin Huebscher, the owner of Kev's Korner, where Joyce buys cucumbers for his prized pickles. Huebscher holds a jar of Joyce's dill pickles. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Keith Joyce nibbles on one of the prized pickles that helped him bring home a blue ribbon and a hundred bucks at Gedney's competition for "Best Dill Pickle" at the Minnesota State Fair. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Keith Joyce looks over the cucumber selection at Kev's Korner in Inver Grove Heights, where he gets the ingredients to make his winning dill pickles. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Gedney's "Best Dill" for second time 

Growing up, Keith Joyce's fondest memories were going to his grandma's house in Cylon, the unincorporated Wisconsin community half a mile west of New Richmond, while she pickled cucumbers and watermelon or made strawberry jam.

The kettles were bubbling and the scent of spices and vinegar filled the house.

"She always had something going in the kitchen," said Joyce, 49, of Inver Grove Heights. "This time of year, it was always canning. We helped out by staying out of the way."

When his grandmother moved into a care facility in 2005, Joyce, "the cook of the family," took up the pickling tradition. 

His first try was "not so good." He didn't have a very specific recipe to start from.

But, he'd developed a keen taste for what worked in pickles. He adjusted the recipe, and hasn't changed it since.

The re-creation of Grandma's pickles garnered "Best Dill" in Gedney's Minnesota State Fair competition in 2007 and again in 2014 -- the only two years he's entered.

Giving in to curiosity

Out of curiosity, Joyce entered in 18 different lots at this year's state fair, seeing how his recipes stood up against those of the state's best makers of barbecue sauce, sweet pickles and salsas.

He tried his hand at the best hot and spicy pickle and a pickle with "around the world flavor." For Joyce, the latter meant adding some avocado that smoothed out the acidity.

He came in fourth for sweet watermelon rind pickles and second for pickled jalapeño peppers. 

At the Dakota County Fair, he was in the top three for sweet pickle relish, sweet cucumber pickles and pickled jalapeño peppers, as well as first for barbecue sauce.

Although none of his other entries did as well as his dills, he's happy to receive the judges' comments.

"Even if I don't get ribbons, I'm usually happy, because I get the feedback," Joyce said. 

That feedback helps him keep his salt tooth satisfied year-round. He makes many of his own salsas and canned goods, packing a couple shelves "too full" of jars.

"A lot of what I make is better than what I buy at the store," he said. "And it's always nice to share."

Sharing his talents

And sharing his kitchen concoctions isn't the only way he aims to give back, he said in a recent interview. 

Joyce is a disabled veteran who struggles with a mood disorder, so keeping a job is difficult. 

After two years of active duty in Germany right out of high school, he started "getting sick." But, "I've always strived to be a productive member of the community, despite my illness."

He was the president of Inver Grove Heights Days for seven years, a member of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission for several years, and has been involved in various non-profits and service clubs, such as the Lions Club and the Jaycees. 

He teaches English as a Second Language at Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio, and is studying to be a part-time substitute teacher with a bachelor's of science degree with an emphasis in social studies and humanities. 

A fresh start

To make his prized pickles, Joyce starts with the same basics every time: freshly picked cucumbers and ingredients from Kev's Korner at 6275 S. Robert Trail in Inver Grove Heights. 

Starting in 1973, Kevin Huebscher sold corn, melons and raspberries from his grandfather's farm. The high-quality produce and friendly reception soon made the stand a go-to for locals. Huebscher opened Kev's Korner in 1982 at the corner of 60th and Robert streets in Inver Grove Heights, and in 1995 moved to his current location. 

Coincidentally, in the 1980s, Huebscher actually supplied cucumbers to be made into Gedney pickles. 

Huebscher said he picks the Regal cucumbers, veggies and herbs for Joyce's pickles the day Joyce needs them from one of the fields among his 77 acres within a mile of the stand. "In the old days," Huebscher says, he used to keep a lot of vegetables and fruits for canning on hand. Now, it makes more sense to harvest them as customers request them.

Within a half an hour of picking up the cucumbers, Joyce soaks them in water to help boost the crunch, and then washes, peels and cuts up his ingredients.

Joyce will say he makes pickles with garlic, dill, onion, salt water and vinegar, but don't even try to get him to ballpark the proportions of each — they're a secret.

Even though his grandmother's recipe died with her, forcing Joyce to create his own take on dills, "I still call them Grandma Joyce's pickles."

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and Follow her at 

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