A couple of weeks ago, Ned Deily and I — both of us having grown up in Pennsylvania Dutch country — were reflecting on the foods of our homeland and mused on chow-chow, a sweet-and-sour relish that was, and is, a staple of the area. Ned wondered about the name, so I’ve spent some time investigating the foodstuff and the name. It’s a monstrously tangled (and largely unclear) story, which looks like a very substantial project for a cultural historian and a lexicographer, neither of which I am. But here are some notes.

Historical background (I’m sorry, but all of this is probably relevant):

1. the British settlement of North America, bringing British cultural influences to the continent

2. long-standing British trade with China, with influences in both directions

3. British trading in India from 1617 on, with influences in both directions

4. the expulsion of the Acadians from the Maritimes, primarily in the 1750s; they went to the U.S., England, and (primarily) France; then many moved from France to Louisiana

5. the “Old China Trade” between the U.S. and the Qing Empire, 1783-1844

6. Chinese immigration to the U.S., starting in 1820 (325 immigrants before 1848, many more thereafter)

A first pass on the food, with speculations about the etymology of the word and the cultural diffusion of the relish from the Wikipedia entry: 

Chow-chow (Chowchow, Chow Chow) is a Nova Scotian and American pickled relish made from a combination of vegetables. Mainly green tomato, cabbage, chayote, red tomatoes, onions, carrots, beans, asparagus, cauliflower and peas are used. These ingredients are pickled in a canning jar and served cold.

Chow-chow is regionally associated with the Southern United States, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, the Appalachian Mountains, and soul food. The recipes vary greatly; some varieties are sweeter than others. Pennsylvania chow-chow, known by the Wos-Wit brand [the company is located outside Tamaqua PA], is generally much sweeter than the southern varieties.

Chow-chow found its way to the Southern United States during the expulsion of the Acadian people from Nova Scotia and their settlement in Louisiana. Chow is eaten by itself or as a condiment on fish cakes, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, pinto beans, hot dogs, hamburgers and other foods.

The term chow-chow is reportedly based on the French word chou for cabbage. Others claim a connection with Chinese cuisine as an origin. A further possible source of the name is the ingredient chayote, which is itself known as chow chow in India. The name is sometimes used interchangeably with piccalilli.

Little bits of the story are fairly easy to tease out. The diffusion of Southern chow-chow to the Southwest (including New Mexico) would result in a shift to relishes with lots of hot peppers in them, which seems to have happened. And chow-chow as soul food would probably be a spread from white Southern customs.

The chayote (a New World squash) doesn’t seem to figure in any of the types of chow-chow I’ve come across, so it’s probably a red herring, even if the chayote is indeed known as chow-chow in India (not a sure thing). The ubiquitous Indian salad called kachumber or kachumber salad (“usually made with cucumber, tomatoes, and onions flavored with salt, sugar and lemon juice”, according to the CuisineCuisine site) is probably also a red herring.

That leaves us with the Maritimes (especially Nova Scotia), Pennsylvania Dutch country, and the South and South Midlands. The story could then be seen as one of diffusion from the Maritimes (where the relish is sometimes described as based on green tomatoes, other times as based on cabbage) down through the U.S. (where the Pennsylvania Dutch picked it up) along the Appalachians to the Deep South (roughly like the diffusion of Sacred Harp music from New England down the Appalachians to the Deep South). The relish in the Maritimes (with their strong Scots-Irish population) could be a descendant of British relishes, perhaps with the influence of British trade with India and/or China.

Indeed, the Scots-Irish, in the Maritimes, eastern Pennsylvania, and the Appalachians, could be seen as independent sources of the relish in the three locations.

But that picture is hard to square with the apparent involvement of the Acadians. If they’re centrally involved, then the case for French chou gains, and the spread would be from the Maritimes to France to Louisiana, and then from cajun cooking to the South in general. (In this scenario, the Pennsylvania Dutch are the anomaly.)

All of these relishes are primarily “end-of-season” preparations, a way for frugal people to use vegetables in the fall, to carry them through the winter. (Note the etymology of relish from reles ‘remnant, remainder’.) Then it might have been possible for different culinary traditions to arise independently in different places, in which case it might have been only the term chow-chow that was diffused.

On finding sources for chow: what fertile ground the CV monosyllable chow provides for etymological speculation, especially when you can range over many possible languages!

The initial C, an affricate as in chew, is phonetically similar to (at least) the corresponding fricative as in shoe, a velar stop as in coo, and a stop-glide cluster as in cute. Meanwhile, the V, a diphthong as in tau, is phonetically similar to (at least) any one of three monophthongs: [a] as in ta, [o] as in toe, [u] as in too. That gives us at least 16 CV syllables to search for in other languages, as part or all of words in those languages that might correspond to chow. This is rich territory, even if you’re restricted to words that might have something to do with food. Speculation rulz.

Now for a couple of illustrations of chow-chow and related relishes from Pa. Dutch country, before I return to etymology.

Notes on Wos-Wit (‘What do you want?’ in Pennsylvania Dutch) products, from the company’s website:

Wos-Wit’s Chow-Chow is a very traditional Pennsylvania Dutch vegetable side dish. It is a mix of lima beans, celery, sugar, vinegar, green and yellow wax beans, tomato, onions, corn, carrots, peppers, cauliflower, salt and various spices.

Wos- Wit’s Mustard Chow-Chow has the same great blend of vegetables as the Regular Chow-Chow, but has a yellow mustard as its base.

Wos-Wit’s Piccalilli is a Western Pennsylvanian style of uniquely pickling sliced sour green tomatoes in a delicious brine of vinegar, sugar, onions, red peppers, mustard seed, celery seed, salt, turmeric, and spices.

(The company also offers, among other things, Sweet Pickle Relish, Hot Pepper Relish, Sweet Pepper Relish, and Corn Relish.)

Here’s a version from further down the Appalachians, but still labeled as Pa. Dutch, with lots of beans (navy beans, red kidney beans, lima beans, and string beans):


The Pennsylvania Dutch are famous for their pickles, relishes and condiments, often served as part of the traditional ‘sweets and sours’ with a large meal. Chow-Chow, in my recollection, has always been one of the favorites. It is made up of a variety of vegetables that are in season near the end of the summer. I remember a church in Dryville, PA, used to make batches of chow-chow to sell for a fund-raiser. That’s where my grandmother got this recipe. It is, without a doubt, the best chow-chow I have ever eaten. I have only tasted one store-bought variety that came close, and it was purchased at a farmer’s market in Asheville, NC. The difference is primarily in the combination and size of the vegetables. In this recipe, the vegetables are cut into small pieces whereas, in most other varieties, they are processed or shredded. Obviously, this takes a lot of care and effort, but is well worth it, especially since you will reap the rewards as long as those delicious jars of goodness remain on your pantry shelf.

On the etymological trail. OED2 under chow-chow n. and adj.:

Etymology:  According to Col. Yule, ‘pigeon-English’; of uncertain origin.

1. n. A mixture or medley of any sort; e.g. mixed pickles or preserves. Also, food of any kind. India and China.
[cites from 1795 on]

2. adj. Miscellaneous, mixed, assorted, diverse; of water, ‘broken’. chow-chow chop: the last lighter containing the sundry small packages to fill up a ship. (Williams, Chinese Comm. Guide.) India and China.
[cites from 1844 on]

3. Austral. slang. = chow n. 1 (Derogatory.) [‘Chinese’]
[cites from 1869 on]

4. A Chinese domestic dog; = chow n. 3. Also attrib.
[cites from 1886 on]

[“Pigeon English” is what we now call “pidgin English”. And “Col. Yule” is our authority on Anglo-Indian usage (note: not actual usage in Indian languages) in (mostly) the 19th century. From the relevant Wikipedia entry:

Hobson-Jobson is the short (and better-known) title of Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, a historical dictionary of Anglo-Indian words and terms from Indian languages which came into use during the British rule of India.

It was written by Henry Yule and Arthur C. Burnell and first published in 1886. Burnell had died before the work was finished, and most of it was finished by Yule, who however deeply acknowledges Burnell’s contributions.]

India and China are mixed together in this entry; it looks like there’s an Indian source, but also possibly a Chinese source, and maybe the two influenced one another before making it to British usage.

The simplified version. From OED2 under chow:

Etymology:  Shortened < chow-chow n. and adj.

1. slang (chiefly Austral.). A Chinese person. (Derogatory.) [from 1872 on]

2. Pidgin-English and slang. Food, or a meal, of any kind. Also spec. =  chow-chow n. and adj. 1. [from 1886 on (Yule’s Hobson-Jobson)]

This sense is supposed to be due to the use of the chow (‘the edible dog of China’) as food by poor Chinese.

3. A dog of Chinese breed, something like a Pomeranian, usually black or brown, with a black tongue. Also chow-dog. [from 1889]

Sense 2 was a surprise to me, as was the suggestion that there were any connections between the various specific foodstuffs, dogs, and food in general (as in chow line, chow hound, dog chow, etc.). Looks like there’s some serious cultural history and lexicography to be done here,

Side dish: piccalilli. Chow-chow’s closest relative is piccalilli, and the two are often not very clearly distinguished. From the Wikipedia entry:

British piccalilli contains various vegetables— invariably cauliflower and vegetable marrow —and seasonings of mustard and turmeric. It is used as an accompaniment to foods such as sausages, bacon, eggs, toast, cheese, and tomatoes. It is similar to a sweet pickle such as Branston Pickle except that it is tangier and less sweet, coloured bright yellow (using turmeric) rather than brown, the chunks are larger, and it is usually used to accompany a dish on a plate rather than as a bread spread. It is popular as a relish with cold meats such as ham and brawn, and with a ploughman’s lunch. It is produced both commercially and domestically – the latter product being a traditional mainstay of Women’s Institute and farmhouse product stalls.

… In the American South, piccalilli is not commonly served. In its place, chow-chow, a relish with a base of chopped green (unripe) tomatoes is offered. This relish may also include onions, bell peppers, cabbage, green beans and other vegetables. While not exactly similar to other piccalillis, chow-chow is often called as such and the terms may be used interchangeably.

In the American Midwest, commercial piccalillis are based on finely chopped gherkins; bright green and on the sweet side, they are often used as a condiment for Chicago-style hot dogs. This style is sometimes called “neon relish.” It can be mixed with mayonnaise or crème fraîche to create a remoulade, though this would not be appropriate on a Chicago Hot Dog and, to some in the Chicago area, would be downright offensive.

In the American Northeast, commercial piccalillis are based on diced sweet peppers, either red or green. This style is very similar to sweet pepper relish, with the piccalilli being distinguished by having a darker red or green color and like British piccalilli, the chunks are larger and it is tangier and less sweet. It is a popular topping on such foods as hamburgers and hot dogs.

Note the variations in central ingredients: cauliflower, vegetable marrow (mature zucchini — that is, squashes), mustard, pickles, sweet peppers.

From OED3 (Mar. 2006) under piccalilli

Etymology:  Origin uncertain; perhaps an arbitrarily extended form of pickle n.1, or perhaps a blend of pickle n.1 and chilli n.

A pickle made from a mixture of chopped vegetables, mustard, and hot spices.

Formerly also called Indian pickle. [cites from 1758 (paco-lilla), 1769 (piccalillo), 1799 (piccalilli), through 2002 (making piccalilli from green tomatoes)

In any case, there’s another India-to-Britain connection, carried over into the U.S.

Amateur etymology and cultural history. Any number of commercial and foodie sites tackle the chow-chow question. Here’s Armadillo Peppers, giving a Southern viewpoint:

Chow-Chow & Relish Overview

What is Chow-Chow Relish?

What is Chow-Chow? The short answer is “good”. Chow-chow has long been a favorite on pinto beans in the South and its appeal is even broader when you consider hot dogs, hamburgers, black-eyed peas and its use on various greens such as turnip greens and collards.

Chow-Chow Relish Ingredients

Chow-Chow (or Chow-Chow Relish) is made from chopped green tomatoes (and sometimes red tomatoes), cabbage, mustard seed or powder, onions, hot peppers, sweet peppers, and vinegar. Other optional ingredients include cucumbers, celery or celery seed, carrots, beans, asparagus, corn and cauliflower.

Unlike most condiments, Chow-Chow retains a chunky (chopped) texture and is not pureed. The taste can be sweet, tangy, hot or a combination thereof. It is typically served cold and like many foods, there are various varieties with an increasing availability of “hot” versions.

Chow-Chow Relish Origin & History

The origination of Chow-Chow is somewhat vague. There are known Chow-Chow recipes dating back to 1770 in the recipe book of Harriet Pinckney Horry of South Carolina. According to the book Southern Food (1993) by John Egerton, Ann Bleidt Egerton and Al Clayton, “Chow-Chow may be derived from the Mandarin Chinese word “cha” meaning mixed and goes back to the 1840s and the coming of Chinese laborers to California”. The Chinese were known to regularly ship spices and pickles to the U.S. and England. Other sources indicate the name may be based on the French word chou for cabbage. Yet, still others believe its roots might be from India.

Most believe that relishes originated from the need to preserve vegetables for winter. More specifically, its origination may have stemmed from using the end of season vegetables in the garden at the first frost. This notion is consistent with the word “relish”, which first appeared in English in 1798 and comes from the word “reles” meaning “something remaining” in Old French. Regardless of when or where Chow-Chow originated, one thing is for sure in that it has been enjoyed in the Southern U.S. for well over 200 years.

[Note the dating problem here: If Harriet Pinckney Horry had Chow-Chow in her cookbook in 1770, and most of the Chinese (who were not, by the way, Mandarin speakers) didn’t get to California until the 1840s, then how can Southern chow-chow come from Chinese cooking? The suggestion that the connection was through the China-Britain (and the Britain-U.S.) trade is intriguing and could overcome the dating problem.]

Types of Relish

There are several different types of relishes (e.g. Chow-Chow, Piccalilli, Pickle Relish and Chutney) and very gray lines in terms of distinguishing the differences between them.  Chow-Chow typically includes green tomatoes, cabbage, mustard seed or mustard powder, some type of hot pepper (even if mild) and other ingredients.

And from the Ohio Relish Company:

Origins of Chow-Chow Relish

Chow-chow, like so many other relishes, has an indistinct but well-traveled history. France appears to be the leading candidate for chow-chow’s country of origin: the French word chou means cabbage, one of the key ingredients, and recipes for this relish can be found in Nova Scotia where the French settled. Other possibilities include connections to China and India (where the relish kachumber includes a similar complexity of spices) as well as England, home of the mustard-laced piccalilli. Chow-chow now finds a home across the United States, particularly in the South, where such relish recipes abound.

Despite the miles the recipe may have traveled over the centuries, chow-chow always makes the most of a good local harvest. Many traditional cultures used relishes to preserve vegetables at the end of the growing season for use throughout the winter, and American recipes for chow-chow reflect this urge to gather in the last vegetables before frost. Traditional recipes use cauliflower and cucumber as well as mixing in green tomatoes and cabbage, and a variety of spices enhances the taste of that end-of-season freshness. The result is a sweet but spicy relish, loaded with crunchy vegetables and tangy sauce – something that goes well with just about anything.

No matter where chow-chow came from originally or how its made, it’s clear that this is a relish appreciated around the world in many ways. That’s why we invite you to enjoy Herbert’s Original Chow-Chow — and Relish the Best!

And from Seasonal Ontario Food:

Green Tomato Chow Chow

Okay, I am probably done with the green tomatoes for this year. There are still a good few rather small ones left, but at this point the compost calls. Enough is enough.

Chow-chow is a very old-fashioned sort of relish, although it is still very popular on the east coast, especially in Nova Scotia. It seems to have died out to some degree in Ontario, although it was once ubiquitous here too. Old cook books are full of recipes for it. The vegetables in it varied somewhat and it went by a huge number of names; Chopped Pickle, French Pickle, East India Pickle, German Pickles, Queen of Pickles, Green Tomato Salad, Green Tomato Pickle, Spanish Pickle, Variety Pickle, Chow Chow, Jim Jam, Picalli (sic), English Relish, Indian Relish, Queen’s Relish, Bordeaux Sauce, Baltimore Sauce, Deacon Sauce, Governor Sauce, Indian Sauce, Novelty Sauce, Priscilla Sauce, Green Tomato Sauce, and Winter Sauce. I found all these recipes in the Canadian Farm Cook Book (1911) . Now, they were not all identical. Some of them called for cauliflower, cabbage or cucumbers, but if it consisted substantially of green tomatoes and onions in a turmeric and mustard based sauce, more or less spiced, I listed it above.

As you see there was no agreement on where it came from. My own suspicion is it developed out of tradition British pickling methods, with a good whack of Indian influence and a whole lot of ending the harvest with a sad but fairly substantial pile of under-ripe produce. Into the pickle it went… waste not, want not, as they used to say before we had an economy pretty much entirely based on wastage and obsolescence.

A wildly different Cajun variant. From a website by a St. Louis-based “blogger and chilehead”:

Original Cajun Chow Chow Relish

Ingredients: Green Cayenne Peppers, Vinegar, Onions, Garlic, Salt & Spices

I’m admittedly NOT a big relish fan. Take for example the ever-popular pickle relish, in all it’s multiple of manufacturers and styles, is “okay”, but is not the first thing I reach into my refrigerator for when looking for something to spread on my hot dogs or burgers. But after one bite of Original Cajun Chow Chow Relish, I’ll have to give other chunky condiment/toppers more chances, especially if they’re half as good as this stuff.

Opening the jar boldly introduces you to a strong vinegar and garlic aroma, with touches of onion-y goodness. It’s powerful but it’s actually not room-clearing as it might sound like it would be. What’s it taste like? A spoonful will “wow” your mouth, but even amongst the pungent ingredients you get a good sense of the weaker ones, too, rounding out the taste and producing a beautifully unified harmony of flavors. You taste the freshness of the cayenne chiles, and onions, and the garlic. There is a good dose of vinegar, but not too much. All the individual flavors are given ample “breathing room” and together they are dynamite. Cajun Chow Chow is terrific on dogs and sandwiches, and would be highly likely to spice up gumbo and soups wonderfully. I couldn’t imagine a pepper-based relish being any better.

This is straightforwardly a hot-pepper relish, only distantly related to the Maritimes, Pa. Dutch, and Southern variants of chow-chow I’ve seen. Where’s the cabbage, the green tomatoes, the beans, the mustard seed, the sugar?

One recipe for Nova Scotia Chow Chow labels it as “green tomato relish”, with onions, salt, vinegar, sugar, and pickling spices, and recommends serving it with Saturday night baked beans. A Southern recipe has green tomatoes, cabbage, onions, and bell pepper. And so on. Meanwhile, another Cajun recipe is closer to other Southern recipes, but is pointedly without cabbage:

Cajun Chow Chow Relish

Sweet Onion and Red Pepper Relish – Pickled Chopped Vegetable Relish

A spicy relish of pickled chopped vegetables. which contains no ‘filler’ items, such as cabbage or corn. There are probably as many varieties of Chow Chow as there are Southern cooks. Chow Chow can also be used with all foods to spice up the flavor in the same way you would use a pepper hot sauce. Though many chowchow recipes call for canning and processing in jars, this one does not.

In general, there’s a tremendous variation in the food preparations that fall under some label (chili/chile, cheesesteak, sub/hoagie/grinder/etc., and many more, from “high” culinary traditions as well as these demotic ones). And the associated cultural history can be remarkably hard to work out, especially since multiple convergent influences and independent innovations have to be taken seriously. As for chow-chow.

19 Responses to “Chow-chow”

  1. Ned Deily Says:

    Wos-Wit was the brand favored by my grandmother. The label and jar appear to be unchanged after all these years.

    That’s quite a tangled web of chow-chow. Thanks for investigating.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Wos-Wit was my family’s favorite too, which is why I featured it.

    • Chip Newton Says:

      Just found yr blog. Love it. I was in kitchen talking about my italian grandmother’s receipes when my uncle mentioned she made ChowChow. None of us knew what it was and he could only remember her pickling things. Soon as I heard the word I thought “oh thts a Mardi Gras Indian word” and googled chow chow spread.Also it reminded me of Muffalatta a famed New Orleans sandwich. After a few hits I came to yr blog and you have referred to the Acadians who left Nova Scotia to come to Louisiana seeking freedom. They went in the swamps and bayous to get it andproblems became known as “Cajuns”. There they dwelled with the local native Americans. There’s a tradition of escaped slaves and other escapees from various problems who also sheltered with the Cajuns and Natives who have the nickname as we know “Indians.” This tradition is honored to this by a social group calling themselves the “Mardi Gras Indians.” They have an entire culture including a “slang” of words the origin of which is far too large a subject to go into, something you could certainly blog about. Its a mix of patois n madeup words. This country and the world was exposed to it in the hit song “Iko, Iko.” Chinese food has nick names like Yakka Mein. Hank Williams song Jumbalaya features a little Cajun patois too. The thriving music scene in Louisiana particularly New Orleans caught on with a lot of people during the Jazz Age, the Depression era migrations. Taking a look at Mardi Gras Indian slang is a whole subject in itself, of which Chow is used quite a few ways.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Dan Jurafsky in e-mail:

    I’ve always assumed that “chow” for food comes from Chinese, from the verb “chow” that is both Mandarin and Cantonese for “stir-fry” (it was YR Chao himself who first created the word “stir-fry” to translate “chow”) and hence often used in brief to mean “to cook”. But i have no evidence for this. Hmm, this could be fun.

    The OED’s 1795 first cite for “chow-chow” as “victuals or food” is Chinese, from a glossary with mostly Mandarin words rather than Cantonese, so my guess is that it’s not Cantonese, although still possible.

    (And while the Acadian seems a more likely culinary source than Asia, Chinese makes more sense phonologically than French chou, since in both Mandarin and Cantonese the fricative and vowel are the same as the modern English pronunciation, while if from French seems like we would have expected the French vowel (and maybe the French fricative?))

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    On Facebook, from Peter Salus:

    Mr. O’Malley, in Crockett Johnson’s “Barnaby” asks for some “Chow-Chow pickle” from the refrigerator.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    And Rod Williams on Facebook:

    Then there’s this “British favourite” [piccalilli]…,9873.aspx

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    Archivist to the rescue! Michael Palmer on Facebook:

    With reference to the supposed date of 1770 for the use of the term “chow-chow”: although says that Horry’s “receipt book”, begun in 1770 [but not completed until considerably later], contains chow-chow recipes, the index to Hooker’s 1984 edition contains no reference to the term. It appears that the term Horry herself used was not “chow-chow” but “ats jaar” [possibly Indian “achar” or “achaar”] or “pucolilla” [i.e., piccalilli]. suggests that at least one of these recipes derives from Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), possibly by way of Briggs’s The English Art of Cookery (1788).

  6. bfwebster Says:

    I was startled to see the reference to ‘chayote’ in your first cited sources — I doubt that anyone in the US (or India) had ready access to chayote until the last 20-40 years or so. It’s a somewhat obscure Central American squash (I suspect it’s available in Mexico, too); when I was living in Central America nearly 40 years ago, I occasionally had it as a side vegetable at dinner. It is very bland and, in fact, its name is used as a joking put-down of others (i.e., “Hola, chayote, como estas?”) for exactly that reason.

    Now that most supermarkets try to have an ‘exotic produce’ section, I do see chayote in the store from time to time, but that really has been a relatively recent development.

    Great post, by the way. I’ve never tried chow chow, but I’m tempted to pick up a jar or two just to see what it’s like. ..bruce..

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, chayotes (and kachumber salad) seem pretty much out of it.

      Chow-chow wants to go along with something substantial: serious beans or meat (beef, pork, lamb). Remember that it’s both sweet and sour.

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now from Michael Palmer on Facebook:

    Pre-1795 references to “chowchow”: I was able this afternoon to spend some time with the full-text Early American Newspapers, Series 1, database. The earliest reference to “chowchow” there is to an advertisement, dated October 11, 1793.

    Pre-1795 references to “chowchow”: 1782 — George Keate, An account of the Pelew [Palau] Islands, situated in the western part of the Pacific Ocean: composed from the journals and communications of Captain Henry Wilson and some of his officers who, in August 1783, were there shipwrecked, in the Antelope … (1788), p. 123 (citing a journal entry of September 1782). 1793 — Charleston City Gazette & Daily Advertiser, October 15, 1793: advertisement by Charles & Thomas Hill, 123 Tradd St., of groceries imported in the vessel “Federalist”, Capt. Pratt, from London, under “Pickles”: “Anchovies, girkins, chowchow” (advertisement dated October 11, 1793).”

  8. ShadowFox Says:

    Several minor points on differences and variations.

    1. Chow-chow: At one point, when staying in North Carolina, I picked up several jars of this “traditional chow-chow” that featured chopped onions and mustard seeds quite prominently, although it also obviously contained some red ingredient (tomato sauce or bell pepper) that was less prominent and identifiable.

    2. Piccalilli in New England comes in essentially two flavors — hot and sweet –much like the pickle relish. There are obvious commercial variations, but it’s generally similar to the Chicago version sans the neon color and with mustard seed and chopped bell pepper added. It is usually sweeter than “pickle relish”, even in the “hot” version.

    3. Achar — mentioned in the comments in connection with the “ats jaar” in Hooker’s book. There is a Southern Slavic/Balkan relish/spread usually referred to as Ajwar. Ajwar is a pickled pepper paste that also comes in sweet and hot flavors. I initially thought the two might be related–perhaps through the Southern European Roma–but then I found this in one of the random Serbian posts:

    Ајвар (од турске речи havyar, слана икра)

    There are two connections here — 1) Turkish (hayvar) and 2) caviar (ikra). This is interesting because, as I’ve mentioned in other places, “ikra” and its English calque (in this case) “caviar” are common Slavic references to ground relish or pickle in Eastern Slavic cuisines. Russians have “caviars” made from mushrooms, vegetable marrow, onion and eggplant as primary ingredient (four different products, not just one made with all four ingredients). Each has its own variation in color and texture and is readily identifiable by the taster.

    The OED makes things more interesting–at least, for caviar:

    Of uncertain origin, found in Turkish as khāvyār; in Italian in 16th cent. as caviale (whence 16th cent. French cavial, Spanish cavial, 16th cent. English cavialy), also as caviaro, whence French caviar. and Portuguese caviar.
    ‘It has no root in Turkish, and has not the look of a Turkish word. Redhouse in his MS. Thesaurus marks it as Italian-Turkish, looking upon it as borrowed from Italian.’ Prof. C. Rieu.

    So it’s Italian — not Turkish. OED also has an entry for “ikary” which starts out with the same 1591 Fletcher reference to the Russian plenty of “Ickary or Cauery”. Turkish maybe, Italian not likely.

    4. From Fallows’s 1885 dictionary (Chicago):

    Chow-chow (chou’chou), n. A Chinese term for any mixture, but in trade circles confined generally to mixed pickles.
    Chow-chow (chou’chou), a. A Chinese term signifying mixed; as choto-chow sweetmeats, preserved fruits of various kinds mingled together.—Chowchow chop, the last lighter, containing the small sundry packages sent off to 811 a ship.

    Scanning GB for similar items, there are 1815-1844 references to “choppy waters” (“chow-chow water [is] a race or eddy caused by the meeting of tides or currents”), type of Chinese dog, animal feed, “any mixture, particularly with rice”, etc. But “mixed pickles” certainly stands out. Plus there is that “last lighter” again. And it’s not a Chinese dictionary–it’s a purely English one.

    Fallows also has Piccalilli:

    Piccalilli (pik ‘a-lil’li), n. An imitation Indian pickle consisting of various vegetables, with pungent spices. Simmonds

    For reference to general “mixture” we can go back to 1788:

    The Chinese dressed their portion differently, making a mixture with rice, and other things, which they call Chow Chow. (link)

    And another reference from 1835:

    Here, also, are the shops of the ‘chow-chow men.’ Chow-chow means any article of merchandise excepting teas and silks. (link)

    Similar from 1837:

    Hog-lane separates this from the fourth, which is called fung-tae-hang, ” the great and affluent or chow-chow factory ;” it derives the latter name from its mixture of inhabitants, viz. Parsees, Moormen, &c.
    . . .
    Seven of the bowls were covered with yellow paper, and ten with red: they contained chow-chow, or mixed meats, deers’ sinews—which latter were particularly recommended (link)

    The first part of the above citation appeared in Niles Register January 25, 1823.

    And another from 1830:

    [footnote]* Chow-chow. This, in the slang of Canton, means either food, or a collection of various trifling articles. In the latter sense it is applied to the chop in question (link)

    “Chop” here means “chop-boat” and the footnote is attached to “chow-chow chop”. So this antedates OED by 14 years.

    Add one more for 1840:

    But nothing crowds more upon the attention of the stranger, as he walks through the bazaar, than the great variety of the chow-chow* eatable things in the shape of pickles, sweetmeats, ginger-root just taken from the ground, and soft, white and tender; and salted eggs covered with a red clay, and shark-fins; and everywhere, first, midst, and last, faddy, paddy, faddy; rice, rice, rice. This is the staff on which the Chinese lean for support; and it is said that a mace a day, or ten-elevenths of a cent, will support a Chinese.

    To each shop there is a back-room, in which the whole coterie, including the principal Chinese of the establishment, and his five, six, or seven partners, who are often all brothers, if so many happen to be in the family, gather for their meals around a single table, with each one his bowl and his pair of chop-sticks, with a single central bowl of larger dimensions, to contain the rice for the whole party. Besides the one large bowl of rice, there is generally seen upon the table a variety of chow-chow dishes, in the shape of pickled ginger-root, garlick, beans, cabbage, etc., from each dish of which they all help themselves with their own pair of chop-sticks, which lose not their place from between the fourth and third fingers and thumb, during the meal, and are “nimble boys” indeed, as their own language designates them. (link)

    The next one is a bit later (1848) but is in a book on Indonesia, not China. Still, the “men of consequence” are Chinese (“Kingdom of Loo Choo).

    Every man of consequence carries with him a kind of portable larder, which is a box with a shelf in the middle, and a sliding door. In this are put cups of Japan, containing the eatables. This Chow Chow box is carried by a servant, who also takes with him a wicker basket, containing rice and potatoes for his own consumption. (link)

    5. Mix into that “chowder” — do I really want to go there? Well, it’s an interesting throw in. (1847)

    And then the delightful chowder, always meaning by chowder not that down-eastern savory dish mads up of a little of every thing, and a good deal of the layers of fish; but by chowder, here, meaning the Chinese chow-chow, that is, medley of any thing; and in this instance it was chow-chow, differing only from a medley of any thing by being a mingling of every thing almost that the wardroom contained—twenty-two chairs, two extra wash-hand stands, a nameless quantity of empty bottles; and before the gale was over, trunks, crockery, tables, lieutenants, the watch officers and civilians, the non-watch officers alike taking their places, at one moment to the larboard, and at the next moment to the starboard side of the lubberly ship. (link)

    Don’t dismiss “chowder” quite yet — it certainly has more sense in it than “chou”. OED etymological note:

    Apparently of French origin, < chaudière pot. In the fishing villages of Brittany (according to a writer in N. & Q. 4th Ser. VII. 85) faire la chaudière means to supply a cauldron in which is cooked a mess of fish and biscuit with some savoury condiments, a hodge-podge contributed by the fishermen themselves, each of whom in return receives his share of the prepared dish. The Breton fishermen probably carried the custom to Newfoundland, long famous for its chowder, whence it has spread to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and New England.

    Another writer in N. & Q. (1870) 4th Ser. V. 261, says ‘I have frequently heard some of the old inhabitants [of Newfoundland] speak of Commodore John Elliot's chowder pic-nic in 1786, which was given in honour of H.R.H. Prince William Henry [William IV] in command of H.M.S. Pegasus upon the Newfoundland station’.

    The citations go back to 1751 (likely off by 50 years) and it goes back to Acadians. To make things more interesting, I also have a non-Acadian French connection, i.e., one that does not involve either the Maritimes or Louisiana. Charlestown, SC, was receptive to French and Flemish Huguenot refugees long before the Acadians had been expelled from the Maritimes. South-to-north migration route makes more sense — if the distribution went north-to-south, how come chow-chow is completely missing from New England and Upstate NY? Oh, that’s right — they went to Louisiana first! But why would it have spread from Louisiana to the Carolinas and Appalachia? On the other hand, if the tradition was started in South Carolina, spread west and north is only natural. But then, of course, there is the question of how it ended up in the Maritimes. It’s still a big gap from Pennsylvania to Newfoundland, no matter which direction one goes in.

    6. If only things were so simple! Here’s from St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal, 1884 (St. Louis!):

    Dr. Prewitt.—I have something hero in this bottle which looks like a jar of chow chow. A woman came to me two or three days ago saying that she had passed something from the bowels and wanted to know what it was. I thought that she had emptied a jar of chow chow into her stomach and passed it through, it looked as much like it. But I am satisfied after investigation that it is the pulp of oranges; she had been eating oranges and the pulp had passed in this form. (link)

    Also showing up in the biography of Henry W. Grady (1890):

    “Well,” said he, thrumming on a paper-box, and smacking his lips thoughtfully, “we will put down first a bottle of chow-chow pickles.” (link)

    7. Finally, the definitive find. This June 19, 1821, piece talks of particularly special “chow-chow” from … England!

    Amongst other articles, I had a present from England of a pair of silver candlesticks, and also a few bottles of Wheeler’s incomparable, but extravagantly dear, chow-chow. The former had, as is usual, a little green cloth fastened under each; these were condemned to a quarantine of forty days in the Lazzaretto; and the pickles were only permitted after removing the strings round the necks of the jars; and what is more extraordinary, the small bits of muslin in each, saturated with vinegar, and which would of themselves have been preventives against the worst of plagues. (link)

    This tale of woe was being relayed from Messina.

    There are a couple of possibilities. Either the “pickles” came from the Maritimes or from China, but certainly not both. So, while both theories can so far be maintained, there seems to be far more evidence toward China as the origin, then the respective products being brought to the Maritimes and other British colonies before they somehow became popular in the South. This has the advantage of two separate points of entry, which explains the disparate distribution, eliminates the French-speakers from the loop entirely and still allows for the move from south to north, through Appalachia and into the Penn. Dutch area.

    The Colonist from March 20, 1828, gives another glimpse of the Chinese sourcing through England:

    China Investment, per H. C. S. Atlas. The Undersigned has received per the — above Vessel, a select Investment of Silks, &c. consisting of — check, striped, and black Sarsnet; Gros de Naples, figured Florentines, Levantines, Sattins, black and coloured Crapes, black and blue Camblets, Shawls, Senshaw’s Lutestrings, brown and white Nankeens, Fans, Netting Cases, Card Counters, Chessmen, Puzzles, Silk Winders, Pin Cushions, Ricepaper Paintings, Combs, Blinds, Earthenware of all descriptions, Ginger, Chow Chow, Sugar-candy, Soy, Locksoy, Writing Paper, and sundry other Goods. The whole of which will be open, and for sale this day. (link)

    In case there is any doubt, The Colonist is a South African publication — not likely to have been influenced by the migration of the Acadians.

    And (East) Indian glossary of 1848 also points to similar origin — certainly another point for British colonies:

    CHOW-CHOW, a Chinese word, indicating a mixture of any kind. Applied particularly to pickles and viands. (link)

    And another from the same period connecting India and China — and Britain.

    A junior Mandarin, whose button was of red coral, coming up from the cabin, took his stand by the Commander. He smiled on us graciously, and saluted the triumvirate of Middies in broken English. They were both in their mollissima tempora fandi ; and little Tim, quick of thought, petitioned them for a jar of chow-chow sweetmeats. In the twinkling of an eye a blue-and-white jar of the delicious conserves was handed up from below; and as the junk rose with the swell of the sea, we caught it from the up-lifted hands of a Chinese sailor, and stowed it carefully away in the corner of an empty hen-coop on the poop. (link)

    After browsing most GB hits for “chow-chow” before 1850, I found not one connecting it to French (aside from the indirect connection with “chowder”) and nearly 500 connecting it with China via England (although some travel literature was distinctly US). Absence can be quite strong evidence. All the pre-1840 hits refer to China or products of Chinese origin. None in the US. A review of periodicals may offer another opinion, but, based on Google Books alone, I am inclined to look for the Chinese connection and how it might have migrated from the from the British Caribbean possessions to the South and to the Maritimes sometime in the 1830s. The fact that the term shows up in Maritime literature before it does in the South or anywhere else in the US points to this connection as well. This would also suggest that Louisiana got chow-chow long after the South, not before.

  9. arnold zwicky Says:

    Expanded discussion by Michael Palmer on Facebook:

    Further to the origins of “chowchow”: The earliest English-language reference to the term I can find is a journal entry of September 1782, quoted in George Keate, An account of the Pelew Islands, situated in the western part of the Pacific Ocean: composed from the journals and communications of Captain Henry Wilson and some of his officers who, in August 1783, were there shipwrecked, in the Antelope … (1788), p. 123. The term does not apply to a pickle but to a dish–described only in the vaguest terms–involving fish and rice.

    There are several references (the earliest being 1785) to the term “chowchow” appearing in English-language journals published in India, which are not accessible to me here (the cite is Eighteenth Century Journals II, at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin).

    The earliest references to “chowchow” as a pickle are an advertisement for groceries in a 1792 issue of the Times (London) (I’ll chase down the precise cite in the library tomorrow) and another advertisement, dated October 11, 1793, by Charles & Thomas Hill, 123 Tradd St., Charleston, SC, of groceries imported in the vessel “Federalist”, Capt. Pratt, from London, under “Pickles”: “Anchovies, girkins, chowchow” (Charleston City Gazette & Daily Advertiser, October 15, 1793).

    From this, it would appear that “chowchow” was applied in the current sense as early as the 1790s. The fact it is a Chinese term used to describe a dish of East Indian origin may perhaps be explained by the fact that until 1833 the East India Company also held a monopoly on trade with China. Perhaps “chowchow” began as the 18th-century equivalent to a brand name, viz. what Harriott Horry called “ats jaar” (achar) actually made in India and imported by way of the East India Company. In any case, the name could have been easily picked up by Pennsylvania Germans from their “English” neighbors, and become a staple of PA German cuisine. I also think claims of an Acadian connection are, to continue the culinary metaphor, a red herring: the dish’s appearance in the Canadian Maritimes could be explained by aggressive English settlement of the area after the expulsion of the Francophones in the mid-1700s, as well as by the influx of loyalists from the United States in the 1780s. And the fact there are dishes similar to chowchow in Louisiana cuisine is no proof in and of itself that these dishes owe their origins to Acadian transplants.

  10. arnold zwicky Says:

    More from Michael Palmer on Facebook:

    Advertisement dated November 14, 1792, printed in the Times (London), Saturday, December 8, 1792, p. 1: “Burgess’s Warehouse, No. 107, Corner of Savoy-Steps, Strand … Burgess has now ready his Piccalillies, or English chow chow; being a collection of the best English Pickles, in Pots …”

    According to the 18th-century journals database, “chow-chow” and “chow chow” appear in the following journals:

    Calcutta Gazette; or, Oriental Advertiser, Volume 05 1786
    Calcutta Gazette; or, Oriental Advertiser, Volume 06 1786-1787
    Calcutta Gazette; or, Oriental Advertiser, Volume 07 1787
    Calcutta Chronicle; and General Advertiser, Volume 01 1787
    Calcutta Chronicle; and General Advertiser, Volume 02 1787-1788
    Calcutta Gazette; or, Oriental Advertiser, Volume 12 1789-1790
    Calcutta Gazette; or, Oriental Advertiser, Volume 15 1791
    Calcutta Gazette, Volume 18 1792
    Madras Gazette, Volume 01 1795
    Madras Gazette, Volume 15 1809

    “chowchow” appears in the following journals:

    Calcutta Chronicle; and General Advertiser, Volume 03 1788-1789
    Calcutta Gazette; or, Oriental Advertiser, Volume 14 1790-1791
    Bombay Courier, Volume 23 1813

    I don’t have access here in Claremont to these journals in full text, although I assume most major research libraries do.

    I had hoped that the records of the East India Company in the British Library would include cargo manifests, bills of lading, or other materials that might describe the cargo that ships of the Company brought back to England, but these appear to have been destroyed in 1858-1860, after the Company was abolished.

  11. Victor Steinbok Says:

    The following is a development of what I originally passed as an email. I am also responding to the request to remove the pseudonym.

    I am somewhat puzzled by Palmer’s focus on India. Much of the GB hits from the first half of the 19th century continue to come from wide-eyed descriptions of China, with occasional highlighting of Chinese influence throughout Southeast Asia all the way to Polynesia. Had the English center of chow-chow production migrated to India as early as the 1790s, there would have been far more literature mentioning chow-chow in that connection–rather than merely the listings of Chinese arrivals to India or even of ships departing from India having picked up both local and Chinese cargo.

    These accounts refer to “chow-chow” meaning one of two things–food or a meal, in general, and a mixture of some kind. The latter can account for “chow-chow water” (unnavigable waters at the cross/mixture of two streams), chow-chow chop (mixed packed items as the final fill of the cargo), chow-chow men and shops (knick-knack and junk shops that sell a mixed variety of items–as one observer comments, except tea and silk), mixed pickles, and dog breeds (essentially a “mutt”). It takes a bit more imagination to say that it can also account for the other meaning (a meal), as this is an assortment or mixture of a variety of dishes. Similarly, the chow-chow reference to a rice dish essentially implies rice topped with a mixture of food items (like Japanese Chirashi-zushi, which is made in a variety of ways, but always involves a mixture of quite varied ingredients).

    All of these point to a direct Chinese connection–including some that identify “chow-chow” as “Chinese pickles”. One thing that should be noted about colonial English taste is the sweet tooth, even when it comes to relishes and pickles. Both piccalilli and English chutney are considerably sweeter than the underlying the underlying Indian pickles and relishes, which are anything but sweet. The same may well apply to chow-chow which is also described as being heavy on vinegar–unlike chutney and achar (the latter being oil-based). So what English chutney is to its Indian progenitor, piccalilli might have been to chow-chow–the sweeter tasting pickled relish that eventually made it to the American North. In fact, “Piccalilli” might have been just one of the original English brands, while the Maritimes, the Caribbean and the American South were receiving the less refined but more traditional “chow-chow”.

    As for India, there does not appear to be reason to believe that achar had much influence on chow-chow manufacture. As I mentioned above, achar is generally oil and/or salt based pickle, while using vinegar as a pickling medium is more Chinese in origin (although Chinese also used oil and salt, but such choices often varied by region). Even lemon or lime achar is more salty and spicy than it is sour. It’s possible that achar came from parts of India that were less affected by colonial trade. The chow-chow factories in India, on the other hand, were simply a colonial transplant of Chinese originals (chow-chow factories figure prominently in descriptions of Chinese economy from the early 1800s). It would not have been the first industry transplanted from China to India to shorten the trade route.

  12. Tané Tachyon Says:

    I saw a jar of “Friend in Cheeses” brand “Chow Chow” in New Leaf (natural-foods grocery) and picked it up expecting it to be some kind of vegetable dish as described in your posting. Instead (as shown in the link above) the ingredients were “Local wild honey with a bevy of dried nuts, seeds and fruits, small batch Bourbon and sea salt”. ???

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, it’s food — chow — but other than that, it’s puzzling. The Friend in Cheeses people seem to specialize in jams (broadly understood), but wild honey chow-chow seems to me to be quite a stretch.

  13. Food and drink postings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Chow-chow (link) […]

  14. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik Says:

    […] Zwicky, meanwhile, mused on the origins of chow-chow, and discussed the marmaxi (as opposed to the martini), the French idiom chaud lapin, […]

  15. Addie K. Martin Says:

    I’m working on a project researching the history/origins of chowchow for a client of mine and your article, along with the subsequent discussion in the comments, has been extremely useful and helpful to me. Thank you to everyone who contributed and thought deeply about this topic.

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