Somewhere between a slaw and a relish, chowchow is a condiment that goes on just about everything.
As the warm weather winds down and the harvest at my local farmers’ market accelerates, I make at least one big, quart-size jar of this bright yellow relish. It’s my way of saluting the season’s last hurrah. Then I dole the chowchow out in the coming weeks as a tangy topping for burgers, hot dogs, and ham sandwiches. It perks up pork roast, salmon cakes, and grilled chicken. I’ve served it on crackers spread with goat cheese. I’ve heard that some folks put it on baked beans.
Unless you’ve had some exposure to Pennsylvania Dutch or Southern cooking, chowchow is probably not on your radar. It’s not the kind of pickle that you find at supermarkets next to the sweet relish. You might find a local artisan company that makes chowchow in small batches, but for the most part, if you want it, you’ll have to make it.
The first time I ate chowchow was about 20 years ago, dining at the gone-but-not-forgotten Groff’s Farm Restaurant in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, right in the heart of the state’s Mennonite community. Operated by Betty Groff and her family, this homey eatery was renowned for its authentic Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.
Each dining table offered an array of small bowls filled with “sweets and sours,” various relishes, condiments, and pickles to complement the supper. Think of them as the Stateside rendition of Korean banchan, the little dishes that show up at the beginning of that country’s meals. Having grown up in California, I was familiar with all colors and kinds of Mexican salsa, but I hadn’t a clue about the different preserved-vegetable concoctions spread before me. The most puzzling was a DayGlo yellow mix of cabbage, red peppers, and onions. The waitress could tell I was a tourist (did my lack of a beard and overalls give me away?), and she came over to the table to give me the rundown.
But first, she put a domino-size chunk of frosted chocolate cake down in front of me. I protested that I hadn’t even had my dinner, yet here was dessert! “After one of our dinners, everyone says they are too full to eat dessert. But we make the best chocolate cake in the world. So now we give a taste as an appetizer, and I promise you you’ll order dessert later.” That was one heck of a sales pitch.
She went on to explain the profusion of bowls. Of course, preserving the summer’s harvest was important in the farm community. And even in the dead of winter, when fresh food was not readily available, the home-canned pickles would round out the meal. If my memory serves me, the collection included pickled beets, dilled beans, a spiced red tomato relish, and the chowchow that virtually shone like a golden beam in the middle. I was told to add them to my plate whenever and wherever I felt like it. There were no rules when it came to eating sweets and sours, although some families believe that for superstition’s sake, there should always be seven bowls.
When I returned home from my trip to the land of buggies and horses, I researched how my new friend, chowchow, got its unusual name.
There are many unconfirmed explanations. Chou is the French word for cabbage, which is a main ingredient in many recipes, so chow is a relatively easy jump. It could have arrived in Louisiana when the Arcadians emigrated from Nova Scotia. With the telltale turmeric as a spice, the original dish was most likely a kind of Indian chutney. Chow-chow means chayote in India, and some versions of the relish include that member of the squash family. Other camps believe it is connected to the Chinese who came to California during the Gold Rush, since cha means “mixed” in some dialects, and China was famous for its exported preserved goods.
As a farmers’ market addict, I always return home with more produce that you can conceivably cook before next week’s shopping spree. This is especially true of the late summer, when I want to buy virtually everything before it disappears for another nine months or so. One of the many charms of chowchow is its ability to use up a surfeit of vegetables.
In some versions, the vegetables are served in a thick mustard sauce, but my preferred method uses a tart, light brine. My recipe for chowchow starts with the cornerstones of cabbage, sweet peppers, and onions. I avoid hot-packing in a pot of boiling water and instead make relatively small batches of relishes and pickles that will keep for a few weeks in the fridge. But from there, just about anything goes. I like corn in my chowchow, too, and I always add a chile pepper for a bit of heat. But other options (to be salted with the other vegetables) include green or yellow wax beans, green tomatoes, or zucchini. So use this recipe as a springboard for your own chowchow.