Chow (chow) down on this Appalachian staple

By Candace Nelson - 10:00 AM


Here's my latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

The fall ushering in cooler temperatures signals that it is time to make the final harvest of the garden by gathering up the wayward zucchini, corn, cabbage and peppers.

These leftover veggies are typically not enough to put up, in and of themselves, but combined, they can create the Appalachian specialty known as “chow chow.”

Chow chow is a condiment made up of those end-of-the-season garden vegetables, combined with vinegar, turmeric and other spices, and then canned. The result is a tangy — and sometimes sweet or spicy — mixed vegetable relish that can add some twang to hot dogs, beans and cornbread or any other dish that could benefit from an acidic kick.

“Evidence suggests that Chinese laborers introduced it into this country about 1850 when they worked on the railroads. Its Chinese origin is evident, not only in its name, but also in the seasonings that include a mixture of turmeric and various mustards,” according to Mark Sohn in “Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture and Recipes.”

“Late in the nineteenth century, this odd mixture of fall garden produce became popular among mountain families, and it has remained a favorite. Today, those who travel find chow chow sold up and down the Appalachian Mountains, but less frequently to the east of west.”

Because of the nature of this relish, the recipe is highly variable. One season, there may be a ton of cabbage left over, while the next year, it may be more pepper heavy.

Typically, a chow chow recipe calls for five to 12 vegetables. That can include celery, hot peppers, green beans, lima beans, tomatoes, apples, corn and more.

That’s the beauty of chow chow. The recipe can range from spicy to mild, sweet to savory, thin sauce or thick, chunky relish — all dependent on the preferences of the family.

Chow chow preserves those fresh veggie flavors and memories from summer — perfect for when there’s a foot of snow outside and the cornbread you made needs an extra kick.

Like many other Appalachian foods, chow chow is a resourceful way to not only make sure every vegetable in the garden is put to use and but also bring some fresh flavors to the table during months when they aren’t plentiful.

This table staple goes well with so many Appalachian dishes and brings that vinegar-based flavor that punches dishes up. Whether it’s a homemade recipe or a gourmet version bought off the shelves of a grocery store, chow chow embodies a piece of Appalachian foodways and carries on those food traditions. How do you take your chow chow?

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