Stephanie Klein-Davis/The Roanoke Times via AP

Rodney Getchell, owner of the quaint Little Rock, Arkansas grocer Hestands in the Heights, cocked his head when I asked what chow chow was. “You never had chow chow?” he said, and with a quick wave he led me, like a vet leading a malnourished calf toward recovery, to an aisle crammed with condiments.

Spared the fate of compost, more complex than an okra pickle, the cabbage-based relish that sounds like a dog is the fruit of agrarian resourcefulness. As the popular Dixieland brand’s label lists, chow consists largely of cabbage and onion, sugar and vinegar, but there are as many versions as there are covers of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. Born in the days when most folks kept gardens, the relish arose as a way to preserve the leftover harvest while stocking winter pantries. Markets were farther then, money tight, so people grew their own food, producing homemade jellies, cane syrup, pecans, canned peaches. After a bounteous summer, people gathered their remaining vegetables in anticipation of first frost, which would kill the peppers and tomatoes, and, to avoid spoilage, chopped them up, added vinegar, sugar, salt, garlic, and pickling spice, and boiled down the mix. So while most chow chows historically contained some combination of cabbage, onion and tomato, the range of ingredients included carrots, cauliflower, lima beans, corn, peppers, cucumbers, okra, even apples, whatever was in the ground―or in excess―when fall approached.

Modern devotees from Texas to Virginia spoon it on their black-eyed peas and pile it on their pork. They eat it on collard greens, baked beans, green beans, red beans and rice. They spread it atop hot dogs, fish sandwiches, scrambled eggs, cornbread, fried chicken and sliced and fried tomatoes. Many Southern grannies even used it to trick finicky kids into eating their vegetables. But for people like me who grew up west of the 100th Meridian―namely, Phoenix, Arizona―the beloved staple remains as foreign a notion as a boiled peanut.

Between bottles of ketchup and brisket marinade, Rodney showed me five brands: Doodles, Moran’s, House of Webster, Mrs. Renfro’s, and the classic, old-time standard in a jar tall enough to hold asparagus, Dixieland. “Now, I’m fifty-one years old,” he said, “been in the business for thirty-four years, and Dixieland’s been on the market long as I can remember.” Shiny jars clinked as he removed the company’s mild chow from the rack. “I’ll always carry Dixieland. You’re just supposed to.” Holding the cool smooth cylinder in my hand, I read the back of the vintage blue-and-yellow label. “Open this jar,” it said, “and enjoy the taste of Dixie.”

* * *

When Dixieland hit stores in 1951, it inadvertently helped standardize what the modern urban Southerner considered a “regular” chow chow. But that wasn’t the plan when George Renfro and wife Arthurine started George Renfro Food Company in his Fort Worth garage. George just needed a job. Appendicitis ended his previous position selling restaurant supplies, so he and Arthurine bought the local Dixieland syrup manufacturer in 1948. They kept the Dixieland name and, after initially selling their goods from the back of a truck, the Renfro’s soon got their syrups into approximately 85% of Dallas-Fort Worth’s restaurants. But George, with two sons to support, was always searching for new opportunities. So when Gold Star Foods went out of business in 1951, he bought their formulas and supplies and started manufacturing Gold Star’s line of jellies, preserves and chow under the name Dixieland.

In those days, the condiment was as inseparable from beans as ketchup is from French fries, yet few commercial brands existed west of Atlanta. Filling this commercial gap, George recreated the flavor he remembered from childhood and quadrupled sales by 1963. Forty-five years later, Dixieland still graces shelves in nearly every chain grocer in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, though Bill Renfro, CEO of his parents’ company, marvels that the relish hasn’t gone the way of the buffalo. “I know young people are growing up not eating chow chow,” he told me on the phone in a voice thick as sorghum, “with frozen TV dinners and what have you, but volume really hasn’t declined all that much.”

That’s because for many, chow chow is tradition. North Carolina’s Sanitary Fish Market in Morehead City serves chow to accompany their Tar Heel hush puppies. John Pecore, chef and owner of the P&K Grocery in Austin, Texas forks his straight from the jar. Jo Ann Ellett of Gate’s Barbecue in Kansas City spoons it on neck bones and ham hocks. In Owensboro, Kentucky, Moonlite Bar-B-Q’s manager Ken Bosley likes his on northern beans. Rather than chopping pickles or adding regular relish, Bill Renfro’s wife mixes chow in both tuna and potato salads. While the March 2006 Issue of Food & Wine magazine featured chow chow on a thick, juicy burger, folks in Little Rock and Pine Bluff eat it with black-eyed peas, purple hull peas and speckled butter beans. And in Fort Worth, closer to the Southwest, they eat it on pintos, a local farm family staple that tastes pretty plain without chow’s piquant adulteration.

Having advanced the humble condiment beyond its rural roots, Dixieland’s distinctively vintage, blue-on-yellow label has hardly changed in fifty years. “I’m not real proud of that label,” Bill says with a chuckle. “I don’t think it’s very artistic or anything…we just hadn’t messed with it.”

How this stuff eluded me for thirty-one years remains a mystery. Lord knows I’m always looking for interesting regional items. I have this odd vacation habit of spending way too much time studying stock on grocery store shelves. I stumble into a market―A&P in New York, Capers in Vancouver, B.C.―and, winding my way through the aisles, I acquaint myself with local culture by studying the contents of bottles. Through culture’s stomach, I guess. Down South―in Anniston, Alabama’s Winn-Dixie or Oxford, Mississippi’s Dollar General―I often start at the hot sauce, browse the marinades, then wander past the molasses, sorghum, condiments and teas. Finishing at the cornbread, fish fry and hushpuppy mixes, I usually end up with an armful of brands I’ve never heard of―Milo’s sweet tea, Pappy’s sassafras concentrate―or make mental notes of the ones, like Prairie Belt canned smoked sausages, bearing Atomic-Age fonts and rosy cheeked child mascots in Hang Ten shirts. Just as garbage provides perverts and the FBI with a peak into peoples’ secrets, groceries furnish the primary texts of my boneheaded cultural anthropology, reflecting tradition and hinting at history where it’s all new to me. That’s how I came across chow chow. That’s how I ended up at Hestands.

* * *

Rodney snickered when I joked how Dixieland’s label seems not to have changed since LBJ’s presidency. Turns out, Dixieland is his favorite brand. Describing the summer veggies he spoons it on, Rodney’s managerial poise broke into a spirited chuckle. “Without it,” he said, “it just ain’t fittin’.” Popular as the relish is, there is little agreement about chow chow’s places on pork.

Brian Ahmed of Tuscaloosa, Alabaman’s Full Moon barbecue sounded pretty certain. “Slaw is a vinegar-based and chow chow a mustard-based relish,” he said. “And good barbecue restaurants serve chow chow with their meat.” When I called Hestands a month later, the idea gave Rodney pause.

“That’s real strange,” Rodney said. “You would put coleslaw on barbecue, but I would never put chow chow on it.”

Ken at Moonlite Bar-B-Q agreed. “I’m aware of it more as a side dish to compliment a vegetable.” Greg at County Line barbecue in Oklahoma City snapped with such verve I feared he thought I called his ’cue boiled. “We don’t do any relishes here,” he said. “We’re a barbecue joint.” And mustard? I was too scared to mention it. Sounds like Ahmed’s either a lone wolf or from Pennsylvania.

At some point, chow became popular in Penn state with a vigor unmatched in neighboring Jersey or West Virginia. Wos-Wit, a local brand from Schuylkill County, PA makes a variety far sweeter than most Southern versions, one based largely on mustard and which includes lima beans, cauliflower, carrots and corn. But expect a funny look when you mention mustard to Jo Ann Ellett at Gate’s Barbecue in Kansas City. “Never heard of it,” she said. “Mm-mm. I can’t imagine.” Jo Ann grew up making chow chow in Excelsior Springs, a small Missouri town where roving farmers regularly sold vegetables from their trucks―hucksters they called them. “Now fried green tomatoes have become very popular,” she said, “but before there were fried green tomatoes, my family fought for those green tomatoes to make the chow chow with.” There may be no single, “traditional” chow chow recipe, but Jo Ann remains adamant about hers: “Shaved cabbage, onion, red pepper―lots of red pepper, we like it spicy―that’s pretty much it.”

The mustard likely came to the Northeast from England, home to a similar relish called Piccalilli, which, while sharing sugar, vinegar, green tomatoes, and onion with chow, is used as much for dipping and spreading as spooning on meat. To confuse matters further, the Brits often call their relish chow chow too, which begs the question: where’d this name come from?

Some believe chow derives from the French chou, meaning ‘cabbage,’ same way the name coleslaw derives from the 18th century Dutch koolsla, or ‘cabbage salad.’ Others thank the Chinese, who regularly shipped pickles and spices to the U.S. and England and have an ancient tradition of pickling everything from watermelon to rabbit. There, the theory goes, in the dingy hulls of ocean vessels, workers labeled their mixtures of packaged goods ‘chow chow’ and the name later extended to the mix of veggies their customers made, be it first in England or the States. Frankly, the history is as murky as a Mississippi slough. “You go, well, of course, it’s just chow chow,” Rodney said. “Well why is it chow chow? Why, I don’t know.” Chow, chou, mustard, no mustard. One thing’s for sure: it isn’t slaw. Never puréed, never bolstered by that insipid thickener mayonnaise, chow chow is vinegary, chunkier and far more flavorful than the bleak creaminess of classic slaw.

I thanked Rodney for his help and carried my booty back to my car. This stuff is cheap, I thought, searching the glove box for a plastic fork or spoon.

I come from a long line of Oklahoma Okies who love their coleslaw, potato salad, biscuits and fried chicken. While I routinely devour the last two, I can hardly stand to smell the first two. I have never been a mayo fan, and slaw’s trademark cold, creamy crunch always tasted like something from a pig’s feed trough halfway to spoilage. But the moment I cracked open that bottle of spicy Dixieland in the Hestands parking lot, I knew I’d found a new, lifelong tablemate. That was twelve months ago, and I’ve eaten my chow chow on everything from fried chicken to baked beans to subpar, Jiffy cornbread. That day, though, in Arkansas, I just ate it in the car with a coffee-stained McDonald’s spoon. And it was perfect.

*Note: this piece originally appeared in Alimentum: The Literature of Food, Issue 8, 2009

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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