Chow-Chow

Serious condiment; silly name.

Chow-chow on a hot dog, by jeffreyw, on Flickr (CC License). See his post here.

Chow-chow is a relish, in essence; a mixture of pickled vegetables that traditionally includes green tomatoes, cabbage, and peppers, often with onions, beans, asparagus, or anything else you might find in an Italian giardiniera, albeit in smaller pieces. Celery seed and mustard seed are typically used to flavor the brine.

The mechanics of chow chow predate American cookbooks–Americans have been preserving leftover vegetables for the winter months since before the process of canning was devised by Appert in the early 18th century. (We talked about him in the post for salmon and pasta salad from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.) Before that, our usual method of preserving pickled vegetables was to pickle them in a stone jar, then pour a thick layer of melted butter on top and put the jar in a cold cellar (sometimes packed with straw to help insulate from temperature shifts.

That said, recipes using the name chow-chow to describe this melange don’t seem to show up until the late 1860s and early 1870s. The phrase seems to have entered our culinary discourse through travelers who heard (or misheard) the word abroad.

Consider the following passage from 1840’s The Flag-ship: Or, A Voyage Around the World in the United States Frigate Columbia by Fitch Waterman Taylor as he describes the Chinese market in Macau (at the time, a city controlled by Portugal):

But nothing crowds more upon the attention of the stranger, as he walks through the bazaar, than the great variety of the chow-chow,* eatable things in the shape of pickles, sweetmeats, ginger-root just taken from the ground, and soft, white and tender; and salted eggs covered with a red clay, and shark-fins; and everywhere, first, midst, and last, paddy, paddy, paddy; rice, rice, rice. This is the staff on which the Chinese lean for support; and it is said that a mace a day, or ten-elevenths of a cent, will support a Chinese.

To each shop there is a back-room, in which the whole coterie, including the principal Chinese of the establishment, and his five, six, or seven partners, who are often all brothers, if so many happen to be in the family, gather for their meals around a single table, with each one his bowl and his pair of chop-sticks, with a single central bowl of larger dimensions, to contain the rice for the whole party. Besides the one large bowl of rice, there is generally seen upon the table a variety of chow-chow dishes, in the shape of pickled ginger-root, garlic, beans, cabbage, etc., from each dish of which they all help themselves with their own pair of chop-sticks, which lose not their place from between the fourth and third fingers and thumb, during the meal, and are “nimble boys” indeed, as their own language designates them.

*This word is used in the sense of medley, and is often repeated in China. Does not the New England word chowder derive its origin from it?

The word chowder is almost certainly from a French word–most likely chaudi√®re, itself derived from the English cauldron, and in turn the Latin calderia–given that it traces the path of French settlement of North America and predates Chinese immigration.

That said, chow-chow wasn’t the only word that emerged during this period; the word chow, meaning nondescript food, showed up in our language around the same time, and with it, phrases like chow down and chow line.

Here’s a version from the September 26, 1872 edition of the Rochester (Indiana) Union Spy:

— Chow-Chow. — Take a quarter of a peck of green tomatoes, the same quantity each of pickling beans and white onions; one dozen each of cucumbers and green peppers, one head of cabbage. Season to the taste with mustard, celery seed and salt. Pour over these the best cider vinegar, sufficient to cover. Boil slowly for two hours, continually stirring, and add, while hot, two tablespoonfuls of the finest salad oil.

From the box of C.N. sold in De Soto, Kansas.

7. Chow Chow

1 peck green tomatoes
1/2 peck white onions
1/4 c. salt
4 green peppers
3 large red peppers
1/2 gal. vinegar
2 T. whole mustard
2 T. celery seed
1-1/4 T. turmeric
2 lbs. brown sugar
1-1/2 lbs. white sugar

  1. Put tomatoes and onions through coarse food chopper or cut in chopping bowl.
  2. Add salt by putting a layer of salt then a layer of mixture and let stand overnight.
  3. In the morning drain off part of liquid.
  4. When well drained add all ingredients and cook 1 hour. Stir while cooking. Seal.

    Catherine Nichepor



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