Published Thursday, July 5, 2012.
“Hi, Grandma, it’s Sylvia. I was wondering — could I have your recipe for chow-chow?”
My cell phone crackled as my 91-year-old grandmother hesitated. “My what?”
“My sauerkraut?” she asked.
“No,” I said patiently. Good hearing has never been my grandmother’s strong point. “Your chow-chow.”
Grandma audibly brightened. “Ohhh,” she said. “The sauerkraut.”
“No!” I nearly shouted. “The chow-chow! The one with the pickled carrots, and the cauliflower, the celery, and the red kidney beans — ”
“Ohhhhhhh.” Grandma let out a long sigh, like she was doing me a favor. “Sylvia, you’re talking about my chow-chow.”
I love pickled vegetables because they seal in summer freshness and tartness, but I have never understood the origin of chow-chow’s name. According to Wikipedia, chow-chow is a regionally-associated cold, pickled vegetable dish that is served in Nova Scotia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, the South, and the Appalachian Mountains. The article claims that Pennsylvania chow-chow is sweeter than other varieties, evidently drawing on our German-Amish tradition of the seven sweets and seven sours. But what is most fascinating to me is that one explanation for chow-chow’s name draws from its similarity to the word chou (pronounced “shoe”), the French word for cabbage, an ingredient found in many chow-chow varieties.
Okay, then — one mystery solved.
The mystery more difficult to solve is that of my grandmother. Later, I called again to ask, “How many pints do you think this recipe makes?” and she answered with the non sequitur, “Double the kidney beans if you want,” but she is a mystery for another day.