Monday, September 26, 2011

Making Chow Chow

I have been savoring MawMaw's Chow Chow in my memory for more than a year now. I resolved that my meager green thumb was going to somehow grow enough green tomatoes to make her delicious relish. Having a grandmother in the 50's usually meant canning days were a part of my life. Unfortunately Mom didn't can much, and I can only remember a day or two at MawMaw's where she was canning which was enough to instill a memory of a hot kitchen in August. My aunt and grandmother in sleeveless floursack aprons, Damp wisps hair plastered to their necks and foreheads, endlessly chopping green tomatoes, cabbage, and onions. Then the sweaty hot business of stirring and stirring with a large wooden spoon in a cadaverous black pot on the gas stove... forever. As a 12 year old it looked like too much work, no fun, and probably much like my mom...too old-fashioned to be a part of my daily routine. But... the end result was...heaven. I guess I never really learned that little lesson from Henny Penny to earn your rewards, so being able to take home a can or two of the rich green treasure wasn't like a job well done, or a deserved award...just a chance at a good meal of blackeyed peas with the spicy tangy topping of "MawMaw's Chow Chow." It was a great fall dinner and an absolute MUST on New Year's Eve. Years after leaving home, every begging year, I feared that my luck would be ruined because the idea of black-eyed peas (with that relish) was not the first thing that passed my lips.
Fast forward almost 50 years and for some reason I wanted to create that same scene, but this time I wanted to earn it. Wyoming wind never gave me a chance to grow anything successfully so my chance came when we moved to Colorado. It wasn't until our third summer here that I was able to grow enough tomato plants to produce the little green charms that I would need. I would shuffle out each morning to scan the plants to count the little yellow blooms and then the eventual bulbs that would be my "green 'maters". I figured that by the end of July the 'maters and I would be ready. Enter deck building weekends and a surprise 10 day visit from little sis and I woefully watched as the green gems began turning red. A delight for our daily salad but a fear that I would not be able to pick enough green ones and how am I going to find the time to let canning take over my kitchen? Especially with the memory of Two Sisters in the kitchen creating Mom's Merangue Pie?  Janie's fragile nerves from a trying year already was the reason for her visit, and was I asking for a meltdown (not sure from her or me) by inviting her to partake in this memory fest? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It was now or never for this season.
Two days after the Saturday Deck Party, a few donated green 'maters from a dear friend and my promise that he would get the first jar, Janie and I gathered the ingredients and began the New Millennium Chowchow Creation.
I had already bought the 2 heads of cabbage, the onions and the carrots. That morning before Janie got up, I chopped up the cabbage and put it all in large plastic bags. A little later,  the onions with the every present tearing eyes were packed away. After seeing Wayne off to work and a couple of cups of coffee and the needed "Gotta have my protein" Breakfast for Janie, I started to assemble the works.
"Do you have the cabbage?"
"Yes, all ready to go."
 "And the onion? I think she was beginning to think I was going to do this all alone. I had to give her something to do."
"Oh, no, would you chop those for me?"
After  the pound of carrots were chopped, we sat and looked over the recipe for the 10th time.
"I really don't remember carrots it it".
"Me either. It says here that she never used hot peppers but I remember the best part was that it was really spicy."
"Me too.and really GREEN. Maybe she put food coloring in it."
"I'm not going to do that."
"Well, it's getting late. Let's go to lunch."
As I looked over the assembled ingredients, the ready pot and the makings for the syrup, I didn't want to leave now. Our speedometers were definitely not on the same cruise control setting. Never has been, and certainly not this visit.
"Janie, we just got started; why leave now?"
"You know I need to eat lunch and I've got to not just sit here all day. I sit at home alone every day. We need to get out."
  Again, the kid gloves go on, and we pack up everything back into the refrigerator and off to NoNo's Cafe. I had promised myself much to my daughter's chiding that I give in to her aunt's demands way too much, to not make waves this trip. The woes of grown children and the typical husband bashing dominated the conversation once again with the repeated barbs of accusations that her daughter would lay on her mother that she was trying to manipulate her life..."How can she say that? I don't have a manipulative bone in my body."
In mid-chew of my hamburger, I had to say it..."Yes, you do." Uh-oh now I've done it. To my surprise the astonished stare from across the table only lasted a few seconds. No fire back, but a request for how that could be.  I tried my best to lovingly point out something that we all suffer from, not really knowing ourselves but how we are perceived by others. She seemed to just ponder the thoughts.
An hour later, we are back in my kitchen and the process of making Chow Chow was once again on track.

"No, no I think you've got it."

This time I know I earned it.
Like the chow chow, the memories of our lives are  bottled up into a conglomeration of  tiny little bits, some are sweet, some are biting or even a little burning hot, but together they can be combined to be stored and later opened up for all to enjoy who want to bring a little of us to the table. There will be someone who doesn't want to try it at all, some who will fondly remember and savor it, and others who will enjoy the newer version. 


  1. This is wonderful and brings back lovely, not to mention, fragrant memories. Our homemade canned drug of choice was Mustard Pickles. My grandmother-in-law taught us all how to make them with tasty things from her garden - in the middle of a large city. Once a farm girl, always a farm girl. The prized veggies were teeny tiny pickling cucumbers and green tomatoes the size of an olive. It was hilarious when she became quite elderly and asked me to refresh her memory on the ingredients for the sauce! Frankly, everything she made was perfect - especially sweets. It seems that their generation really had talent for that area of cooking. It was the those ordinary days and yearly rituals I will always remember. I was honored to be accepted into her family as if I were her own.

  2. To each his own. I think of my children. Some are interested in tradition and some aren't. The ones who are interested are also interested in the family recipes, even if they don't like the food. They eat it anyway, just because it reminds them of happy times! As long as it’s not tongue, kidneys or liver. They enjoy the memories of family unity, more steady family finances, sports events, new brothers and sisters and grandparents still being here. They remember trips from the cities to the family farms. Who really likes wilted spinach salad but they will ask for it once in a blue moon. For me, growing up, I would not eat sausage. Remembering my family making sausage was nauseating. It’s not so bad now but I don’t go out of my way for it. I also hate eggs but would eat them freshly gathered from the chicken coop on a summer morning. Like you've said, we all have a different perspective but family can endure, even with our differences, if we’re lucky. It's hard though, sometimes. Loneliness is the alternative. Compromise is hard but I would rather be happy than right all the time. There is never a family memory that all agree on. So, sometimes biting and sour is the price to pay. Our family also ate a lot of crow, which wasn’t too bad, once you spit out the feathers!

  3. This is a great post - a little of this and a little of that. How nice it was that your grandmother took time to include you in the production line. A lot of families have those summer concoctions that are spicy, sweet and vinegary - dill pickles in crocks and canned chutney. We picked dill weed on the side of the road and would gather walnuts which fell from Black Walnut trees along the highway. A neighbor had a plum tree and those plums were divine. Another neighbor had a persimmon tree and bread made with these were a great treat. Putting ripe persimmons in the freezer and then eaten out of the skin it like sorbet. I think back about air pollution and all and wonder if someday we'll have something go haywire with all the roadkill produce we would think were great finds. Oh well. These are priceless memories nevertheless. You and your sister seem to go against the world together and stick together, no matter what. What good people you must be. The thing I remember about so many of these efforts were that it was so often a community activity and it was meaningful - a little like quilting.

  4. Chow Chow - Wow Wow. This was a family favorite and a tradition. It was a pleasure to witness everyone being nice to each other and then, things went back to being the Bickerson Family!

  5. What interesting and sweet memories you seem to have of your upbringing. I enjoy them so much. I like the idea of things being bottled up - the good and the not so good. Some people don't like to remember the good things as much as they don't like the tough. It sometimes takes courage to look back, much less with someone else who may see it in a different light. Some people may even become hostile. You and your sister must be very special. You don't sugarcoat things but I hear the love each time you mention her. I wish I had a sister. These seem like unique and special relationships, especially when two people are so different.

  6. The green food coloring thought is charming. I've never known a cook to divulge "everything" in their bag of tricks. I heard a story about a woman who always cut the small end off of a canned ham at holiday time. So, she did the same thing. Later, she asked her grandmother why this was always done. The grandmother said, "Because my pan was too small for the whole thing". I like the food coloring possibility. More than that, I'll need to ponder the manipulating our daughters thing. Sometimes, I'm not sure I know what manipulative really means. If I don't know what it is, maybe I am doing it! If so, I want to change it. I can see it in others. I better take a step back and look into the mirror...


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