The Last Jar of Chow-Chow

By Diane Hollister.

Remember the shelves of jars going down into your grandma’s basement? The old glass jars with zinc lids that were filled with fruits and vegetables and maybe even some canned meats? The ones that sometimes eluded you and turned up in dusty musty corners years later, forgotten?

Those jars may not seem so critical nowadays where you can pop into your local grocery store, open your chest freezer, or pull a can off the shelf. We’ve been spoiled; finding fruits and vegetables out of season is as easing as opening a can, bag, or freezer container. Years ago, however, those jars were a lot more critical. Once the frost hit, and your garden was emptied of its contents, you were stuck for months with root vegetables. Spring, and dandelion greens, was a long time away. You needed more than potatoes, pumpkins, beets, onions, carrots….

Food Heritage of Eastern Pennsylvania exhibit, Mennonite Heritage Center. Photo by Joel Alderfer.

Pickled vegetables

You just might be craving some chow-chow or what some Pennsylvania Dutch cooks called piccalilli. Think of it as pickled mixed veggies. There are variations of the recipes, just like anything else. One of the key differences appears to be that many piccalilli recipes seem to have a wider variety of vegetables added to the ingredients, but generally, the recipes for both “relishes” can be very similar.

Chow-chow was very much in line with the “waste not, want not,” or “use it up/wear it out/make it do/or do without” belief of Pennsylvania German settlers. Chow-chow made use of the late summer garden bounty; it was a great way to use up not only surplus, but misshapen or not quite perfect garden goodies.

Like many other PA German foods, chow-chow has its own balance of the sweet/sour combined with “pickling spices” of mustard and celery seed. Folks served it cold or hot as a side dish, or even as a “gravy” for mashed potatoes. Chow-chow is quintessential PA Dutch; a sweet and sour mix of pickled vegetables often served as a side dish next to other PA Dutch classic foods.

Not only delicious, it is near and dear to a Dutchie’s heart—you know we like to let nothing go to waste. While the true origin of the name isn’t officially known, there are a few theories; some believe that it comes from the French word for cabbage, “chou”. Others surmise it may be related to Indian squash, “chayote”, which is also known as “chow-chow”.

Making chow-chow

Regardless of the history of its name, and the fact that there’s no one right way to make it, there are some things accepted as standard. In our grandmothers’ kitchens, starchy vegetables like corn, beans, carrots, lima beans, kidney beans and celery would be pre-cooked. Then the big canning pots would appear on the stove and those pre-cooked veggies would be added to chopped cabbage, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and more. Vinegar would be poured from the old ceramic jug, and the sugar added. There are disagreements as to the right balance of sweet/sour here; personally, I think some recipes are way too sweet. Finally, the mustard seeds and celery seeds would be added, just the right spot on the woodstove located, and the lid put on the pot…to boil and then simmer. Eventually the mixture would be canned and then put away.

Manuscript chow–chow recipe, early 20th century. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection. Click the photo to enlarge or print.

Hot summer job

It was—and is—a hot summer day’s job. It helps to have many hands to help with chopping and canning. It is somewhat like capturing summer in a jar, though, and much appreciated on cold, damp dreary days when you’re tired of potatoes. And at the end of those long winter days, when the greens were starting to peek through the melting snow, and you pulled the last jar of chow-chow off the shelves, you knew….

Spring was coming. You’d be planting that garden. You’d eat your dandelion greens with hot bacon dressing, you’d plant your peas and lettuce and corn…and in a few months, you’d make another gigantic batch of chow-chow.


Summer chore of “doing beans” on the Derstein farm, Hatfield, Montgomery County, circa 1955. Courtesy of Joel Alderfer.


Nancy Roan’s chow-chow recipe was published in the Goschenhoppen Historians Folk Festival Cookbook, Fifth Printing, 1989.

All vegetables are pre-cooked except for cucumbers.

One large bunch celery
2 small heads cauliflower
2 lbs. onions
6 cans red kidney beans
2-3 qts. fresh or frozen lima beas
1 qt. cut green peppers
1 ½ qt. sweet red peppers
2 qts. yellow string beans
2 dozen ears corn
2 qts. cut carrots
2-3 qts. pickling cucumbers
3 qts. cider vinegar
5 lbs sugar

Mix thoroughly. Add 1 tsp. dry mustard and ¾ tsp. celery seed. Bring to a boil. Process in jars according to recommended water bath times for pickled vegetables.

Mustard Beans

Mustard Beans are a unique, old pickled vegetable recipe.

From the Willing Worker’s Cookbook, Frieden’s Union Church, Sumneytown, PA, Sixth Edition, 1924:

MUSTARD BEANS—1/2 peck yellow string beans, cut in 1/2 inch lengths, boil in salt water until tender then drain, 1 glass of mixed mustard, 2 cups granulated sugar, 1 pint vinegar. Mix well together and pour over beans. Let come to a boil. Put hot into airtight jars. — Mrs. H. R. Grubb.

Note: This recipe does not meet modern food safety standards for canning foods.

Some basic information about home canning:

Author Diane Hollister demonstrates making chow-chow at the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.

Fresh beans from the garden. Photo from Pennsylvania Dutch Food Ways Project, Goschenhoppen Historians, 2008.

2 thoughts on “The Last Jar of Chow-Chow

  1. I have fond Memories of making chow chow with my mother, Ada Schultz, over the years. It was quite the tradition!


  2. Very useful and well done piece. I still remember the last jars of piccalilli, pickled beets and apple butter from my grandmother’s basement. My mom and aunt tried to replicate the recipes but they were never written down. Thanks goodness taste memory is strong.


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