Like countless mothers of small children seeking 10 uninterrupted minutes for a conversation, Ashley English was in hiding. In this case, the author of 11 books was sequestered in an alcove of her attic. The conversation was about chow chow, the relish, and Chow Chow, the Asheville culinary festival, which has been COVID-ed from September 2020 to September 2021.
English is such an authority on the relish that she was asked to demo it on stage at the inaugural Chow Chow event in 2019. “Katie [Button, chef, owner of Cúrate and president of the Chow Chow board of directors] and I are friends, and she knew I had a recipe for chow chow in my book Southern From Scratch,” she explains. “She connected me with the festival director who was doing the programming for the weekend.”
English happily accepted the proposal to make chow chow on stage with the caveat that she could partner with her friend and mentor, Barbara Swell, cookbook author and instructor of “old-timey cooking,” as Swell describes it.
“We have different styles, approaches and ingredients, which we talked about in the demo,” English says. “Barb talked about how she often puts in green tomatoes and sometimes even a chopped green apple. Chow chow is pretty democratic that way — there are so many permutations and iterations, you can customize it the way you want.”
Ann Gassenheimer, founder and co-owner with husband Pat Gallagher of Vegetable Kingdom, which produces jarred, heat-and-eat meals and condiments, agrees on the diversity of chow chow representation. “Chow chow is made all over the world in some form, by some name,” she notes. But when it comes to her business’s award-winning green tomato chow chow, she sticks strictly to the recipe handed down from her maternal great-grandmother, who lived in Louisiana.
“I made it every summer with my grandmother and great-grandmother,” Gassenheimer says. “We didn’t call it chow chow then, we called it green tomato pickle. When my great-grandmother wrote down the recipe for me, it was ‘Grannie’s Green Tomato Pickle.’”
The couple were farming in Beaufort, S.C., in 2008 when they launched Vegetable Kingdom as a way to use their leftover produce. Gassenheimer, who grew up canning and preserving, says the company’s first product was kumquat marmalade. “People liked it and asked if I could make this thing or that thing,” she recalls. “We added a pear chutney and some salsas, and that’s how the chow chow got started. We named the company Vegetable Kingdom, and it grew from there.”
In 2017, they moved their residence and company to Asheville, where she says they have found an abundance of ingredients for their products and an enthusiastic market. In 2019, Vegetable Kingdom’s green tomato chow chow won the Best Condiment award from the N.C. Specialty Foods Association and was featured in the makers tent at Chow Chow 2019.
Chef John Fleer, owner of Rhubarb, The Rhu and Benne on Eagle, did not have chow chow running through the veins of his culinary heritage but jumped on board when he found himself working at Blackberry Farm resort in Walland, Tenn., in the 1990s. “My discovery of it came with the exploration of the alien-to-me planet of East Tennessee,” he says with a laugh. “It was not something I grew up with. But we needed to have it, and I developed a recipe replicating what I was seeing at farm stands and in markets around there.”
Along with his grandmother’s pepper relish, the Winston-Salem native says, chow chow has been one of the two core relish-type condiments on his menus “for longer than I want to admit.” In Benne’s first year, it was the accompaniment for chef de cuisine Ashleigh Shanti’s potlikker wings, and at Rhubarb it sidles up to Fleer’s lamb ribs. “When you need something tangy that has lots of character, it will find its way onto a dish,” he says. “We use it liberally.”
English says chow chow is key to her summer meals. “We live in a 1930s bungalow with no air conditioning,” she says. “In the summer, we end up eating lots of cold soups and sandwiches, and chow chow really livens them up.”
“Chow chow is just an essential Southern table condiment,” Gassenheimer asserts. “You can eat chow on anything, on everything and on nothing, with a spoon right out of the jar. It’s a Southern thing.”
The recipe English and Swell demoed from Southern From Scratch can be found at avl.mx/855. Vegetable Kingdom’s green tomato chow chow is sold at The Rhu and on the company’s website, avl.mx/856. See the sidebar for the recipe Fleer says he developed “from tasting lots of chow chow.”