Chow Chow (relish)

I cannot recall how many times chow-chow was served growing up, but it was always one thing over which my mother raved. I was not particularly fond of it, but I now suspect that was because I was a finicky eater. Fortunately, we were never forced to eat something we did not like. My oldest sister would likely have said something to the effect that one should broaden one’s horizons. I, being the youngest, was discovering the likes and dislikes among my Mom’s offerings after my siblings had all gone off to college. I know my mother loved Chow Chow, but I doubt she ever canned it herself because we just never had enough surplus for that from my Dad’s garden. The kind of surpluses that prodded early settlers to save much of their summer harvest before the first freeze of winter, that is – we ate everything as it ripened. Plus, my Dad’s garden was already thoroughly inundated with weeds by early July. We typically had only potatoes to grub out in late summer—a task I did not necessarily like. So, anytime Chow Chow was placed on our table meant it had been a gift.

Chow Chow is supposedly an original American term which came into use in the mid-1800s and was defined by the grocer Artemas Ward in 1923 as a mixture of pickles of various sorts, especially mixed vegetables, in mustard. Ward, incidentally, wrote The Encyclopedia of Food and Beverage, not necessarily America’s most popular book of the month, but a book revealing the growing, preparation, and marketing of foods for anyone who cares to know of such things. He confirmed that Chow Chow was essentially invented to save the last things to be harvested in one’s garden—a kind of end of the season recipe. Anything could be thrown in—cauliflower, cucumbers, cabbage, whatever.

Some believe that Chow Chow found its way to the southern United States during the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. Remember Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline? Others think it came about because the French word of cabbage is chou. Back east, however, the Pennsylvania Dutch were busy saving every edible thing from their gardens by canning them at the onset of winter. There is no exact recipe of what must be included, and its beginnings remain rather obscure.

Chow Chow is eaten by itself or as a condiment on fish, mashed potatoes, biscuits, pinto beans, hot dogs, and other foods. Its ingredients vary considerably throughout the United States, and in the South it is almost entirely made from green tomatoes and various amounts of cabbage, onions, and peppers. It is generally processed the same as pickles. It is served cold, often as a condiment or relish. Some have suggested that it is great to serve with crackers and cream cheese – what an innovative idea! From Texas to Virginia and everywhere in between, sweet, spicy, and tangy Chow Chow is a beloved dish. It can be made fresh and kept refrigerated, or canned using proper techniques should one wish to store it longer, or should you be facing a garden-full of vegetables doomed for the approaching winter. One important note of caution I discovered came from an avid canner. She highly recommended pickling salt because it is finely ground and dissolves easily in the brine. Consequently, it prevents the juice from becoming cloudy and turning the cabbage, if including that vegetable, dark. I suppose that might be important if entering one’s prized Chow Chow in the county fair.

The recipe I found in my Mom’s handwriting left lots to one’s imagination and absolutely no guide as how to make it. If not intending to stock the shelves of one’s cellar, I suggest the quantities may be reduced to provide a quantity for a single jar—particularly since most modern homes no longer have cellars.

Ingredients:                                                                         Other Options:
12 green tomatoes                                                            ½ head cabbage
4   bell peppers (red or green)                                     1 carrot
3   white onions                                                                 ¼ cup brown sugar
3   hot jalapenos                                                                 1 tsp mustard seed
5   T sugar                                                                              1 tsp mustard powder
1   T pickling salt                                                                 ¼ tsp turmeric             
1   cup Apple Cider Vinegar                                         ¼ tsp celery seed


Remove inner core of the bell peppers and jalapenos and dice into small pieces.

Dice the onions and set aside.

Remove cores from the green tomatoes, slice, dice and set aside.

Mix all the vegetables in a large glass or stainless-steel bowl.

Sprinkle on the Pickling and Canning Salt.

Continue to mix well using one’s hands until accumulating liquid coats all ingredients.

Cover with aluminum foil or lid and allow to rest from 12 to 18 hours at room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

Remove and allow to drain for a few minutes.

Combine in a large pot and bring to a simmer for 20 minutes uncovered.

Ladle mixture into hot, sterilized pint jars leaving 2/3-inch headspace or refrigerate until ready to serve.

If canning larger quantities, follow standard suggestions for processing one’s jars a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

Allow to cool before storing.

By: Mark Wieser

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