“Sweet Roma tomatoes, grassy licorice tarragon, thin purple eggplants and small crisp beans thrived in a series of old wine barrels that sat in the tiny square.” N.M. Kelby, “White Truffles in Winter”
There are two reasons why I have actually tasted recipes like today’s tomato relish.
One: I live in Appalachia, where there are still a few women who preserve the summer’s abundance in jars that sparkle like stained glass when they are filled.
Two: A combination of unusual longevity and long gaps between the generations of my family meant I spent a fair amount of time interacting with not only a grandmother born in 1906, but her aunt, who was born in the 1880s. That’s right, the 1880s.
Great-great Aunt Josie happened to live on a farm just outside my college town. She insisted I check in regularly and got testy when I didn’t. She tried to set me up with eligible bachelors who were sometimes 20 years my senior. In the vain hope of adding some curves that would attract said bachelors, she also fed me well whenever I could make it out to her home.
Her table always included a wonderful relish of some kind. She called them chow-chows, no matter what the ingredients. At the time, I was more interested in her fresh berry cobblers — served with cream straight from the cows mooing just across the gravel road. But, the relishes were amazing.
In Appalachia, they can still be found here and there, but they are disappearing quickly and are virtually unknown to people under the age of 70, especially those who live in cities.
That’s why it was a delightful surprise when our neighbor, Mary, came to the kitchen door this week with a bottle of what is locally known as “chili sauce.” It is a recipe from her late husband’s grandmother, who would have been a contemporary of Aunt Josie.
If you, too, would like a taste of Victorian garden abundance in a jar, here’s how to do it:
Grandmother Moore’s Tomato Relish
*Chop a dozen 2-inch diameter onions and 6 small green peppers. Peel 1 peck (about 12 pounds) ripe tomatoes by quickly dipping them in boiling water, then sliding off the skins. Chop the tomatoes into small cubes.
In a large pot, combine the tomatoes, onions and peppers with 1 lb. brown sugar, 3 Tablespoons salt and six whole hot peppers.
Simmer for two hours, until very soft. Add 1 pint apple cider vinegar, 1/2 Tablespoon allspice, 1 Tablespoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/2 teaspoon paprika. Simmer another hour, stirring frequently.
Remove hot peppers and ladle the relish into sterilized (dishwasher cleaned or heated in boiling water) glass jars. Either process lidded jars in a hot-water bath or store the jars of this high-acid product in the refrigerator and use within 4-6 weeks. For longer storage, let cool to room temperature and repack in freezer-safe, tightly sealed containers. Can freeze about six months.
In Appalachia, this kind of relish is often served with grilled meat, such as burgers or hot dogs, and is generally called “chili sauce.” That is tasty, but I like it even better served as a small side to a curried stir fry — chutney style. Honestly, this is so good, I can also see just eating it off a cracker or with some hearty bread.
*This recipe — handwritten, of course — uses charming units of measurement like “pecks” and “small dishpan full.” This means amounts are approximate. Don’t let that throw you. If great-great-great-great grandma could do it, you can, too!