Mama E's Chow-chow

September 16, 2013

Every week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.

Today: Elizabeth Stark of Brooklyn Supper shares a Southern recipe from her beloved mother-in-law.

Shop the Story

Let me start by saying that my Nana was an incredible baker, responsible in some part for every pie I've ever made, and I will forever regret not cooking more with her when she was alive. Alas, I was a difficult tween. I include this preface because, for this post on an heirloom recipe from my family, I've made something from my husband's. Like most who lived through the depression, my husband's grandmother, Mama E, was thrifty and smart and capable. She died a few summers ago, and I'll always remember that even though she was terribly ill, she had a well-tended little garden on her back porch. Just because you're sick doesn't mean you can't do a little canning.

(Left: Mama E on her wedding day. Right: Mama E in 2009.) 

But there was more to it with me and Mama E. Despite our sixty-year age gap, we had a lot in common. Our conversations frequently turned to subjects like lard pie crusts, canning, gardening tips, and good tomatoes. When she died, her canning jars went to me. And we still have a jar of her hot pepper jelly: a kind of lasting tribute to Mama E right there in our pantry.

When my husband and I began doing research for this piece, his mom sent over a few of Mama E's recipes. Since moving back to the South, I've been taken with all the Southern foods I overlooked last time I lived in these parts. High among my newfound Southern food loves is chow-chow. Perhaps the perfect condiment, I have yet to find a snack on which it is not delicious. So I happily chose Mama E's chow-chow recipe, which happens to also be her mother, Mamaw's recipe. 

(Left: Mamaw)

Did I pick this recipe so you could hear all these great Southern grandma names? Yes. Yes I did. 

A friend recently asked about chow-chow, specifically: "what is it?" For the unindoctrinated, it's a relish or mix of pickled vegetables that's at once sweet, spicy, and sour. It harkens back to a time before pickles or relishes were standardized, and is traditionally made with a thrifty mix of cabbage, red and/or green peppers, and green tomatoes or tomatillos.

Like most Southern foods, chow-chow has several variations and everyone thinks their version is the best one. Being only an adopted Southerner, I decided to try the recipe a few ways, both as a true relish and a chunkier array of pickled vegetables. Really, both were quite good, so do whatever you, or your grandmother, would like best. Chow-chow is often enjoyed as a small side served alongside baked beans or macaroni salads at picnics, and in this role, I like the chunkier version. It's also excellent atop a hot dog or a buttery cracker, and in this capacity, the relish is best.


Makes 3 - 4 pints

4 tablespoons sea salt
1 quart water
3 cups cabbage (roughly half a small cabbage), cut into short, thin ribbons
1 cup yellow onion (1 large), diced or minced
2 cups tomatillos, green tomatoes, or a mix (about 6 medium tomatillos), chopped or diced
4 cups red, yellow, or orange peppers, cored, seeded and diced or minced
2 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 flavorful dried chili, such as ancho
4 allspice berries
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 stick cinnamon

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here. 

Listen Now

On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Annette Snow Ludolf
    Annette Snow Ludolf
  • Ricky Taylor George
    Ricky Taylor George
  • walkie74
  • Elizabeth Stark
    Elizabeth Stark
Elizabeth Stark, along with her husband Brian Campbell, chronicles her passion for simple, fresh recipes on the award-wining food blog Brooklyn Supper.


Annette S. September 17, 2013
thank you for the wonderful article - it brings back fond memories...When I was much younger, my family were neighbors of your mother-in-law and Mama E, or Miss Mildred (yes, another Southern name) as she was called by me...she was a wonderful cook! our families would have get togethers from time to time...she was afraid to try anything...fried oysters were a specialty also and one of my favs...however, she had many specialties in my book!
Elizabeth S. September 17, 2013
Hi Annette, Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I am so happy to hear that you knew Mama E too! I like that she went by Miss Mildred. I guess the next southern specialty I'll have to master is fried oysters!
Ricky T. September 17, 2013
this looks great
Elizabeth S. September 17, 2013
Thank you Ricky! Glad to find a chow-chow lover out there.
walkie74 September 16, 2013
I think we're missing a few pictures here...
Elizabeth S. September 17, 2013
Hi there, Sorry there aren't more images of the process, but I hope you'll find the recipe to be pretty clear. In the top image you can see the chunkier version and the relish version––if you're game to try one, there are instructions for both. Thanks for checking out the piece!