The making of chow-chow involves far more than the blending of vinegar, vegetables, and spices. Canning this mysterious relish, made for generations in the Mountain South, signals change and ingenuity. The seasons are about to change—and Appalachian cooks know just what to do.
In the latest days of summer, when garden vegetables are in decline, when their shapes and colors are not as strong and bright as before, resourceful cooks find a use for them. Often that use is chow-chow.
True to the eternal spirit of mountain frugality, pickling and preserving perpetuate the goodness of the garden. Making food last, so that memories of the summer garden brighten even the darkest of winter days, is a hallmark of the Appalachian kitchen. Cooks in these mountains are among the best in the world at stretching and saving the products of the land.
Concentrated by cooking, fortified by vinegar, and intensified by once exotic spices like cinnamon and turmeric, chow-chow offers piquant counterpoint to one of the region’s enduring and iconic meals, a bowl of soup beans.
With each spoonful of chow-chow, in any season, my thoughts turn immediately to the humble kitchen of the late Janette Carter, in Scott County, Virginia. She was the daughter of the First Family of Country Music, A.P. and Sara Carter, and she inherited her chow-chow recipe from her mother.
In early 2002, four years before her death, I visited Janette’s kitchen, in the Maces Spring community, to get a few lessons about chow-chow and a lot of lessons about life. While internationally famous for their music, the Carters never forgot their own very personal connections to the land—to Poor Valley, to Clinch Mountain, to Brickyard Gap. Making chow-chow strengthened those connections.
Despite constant media attention and never-ending demands on her time as the owner of the Carter Family Fold, a live music venue, Janette always made time to stir up and can a big pot of chow-chow so that she and her family and the members of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church could enjoy it until the cycle restarted the next year.
Her brother Joe forged an S-shaped tool solely for the chopping of the cabbage, onions, green tomatoes, and bell peppers. Janette told me that the chopper made the rounds, in kitchens all over her end of the county. “That’s what people do here in the valley,” she said. “Everybody helps one another.”
That old family recipe, on a yellowing card, was mounted inside a notebook and surrounded by family photographs and documents. The tape that held the recipe to the page was amber-colored and brittle. But its place in the collection of family heirlooms and memorabilia was clear and permanent.
Making chow-chow was as much a part of Janette’s identity as playing the autoharp. Stardom never changed her. In middle age, she worked in the cafeteria at Hilton Elementary School, dishing up soup beans and handing out light bread to students.
As far as chow-chow recipes go, the Carter version is one of the longer ones. There are countless variations of chow-chow in Appalachia and beyond. Some are spartan, incorporating not much more than chopped cabbage, peppers, and vinegar. Others, like Janette’s, call for a lengthier list of ingredients—in her case, 12. A trademark of the Carter version is the use of brown sugar. Janette cautioned me to add the brown sugar “scantly,” even though the recipe calls for three pounds of it.
Food historians and scholars still argue over the origin of the name chow-chow and how recipes for it originally came into the Appalachian region. It has close cousins all over the world: atjar pickles in Indonesia, torshi in the Middle and Near East, the chutneys of India, and Great Britain’s piccalilli among them.
Eating chow-chow with the Carters offers a reminder of the rhythm of the seasons. The previous year’s batch is passed around the table while the remnants of the waning garden simmer on the stove. Janette’s daughter, Rita Forrester, continues the tradition to this day.
Some of Nashville’s most famous musicians once sat around Janette’s simple table, eating bowls of soup beans and ladles of chow-chow, refreshed by her humility and nourished by the labor of her work-worn hands.
About the author: Fred Sauceman’s latest book is Buttermilk & Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia, published by Mercer University Press in Macon, Georgia.