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…