Doc Lee’s Chow Chow an Old Southern Tradition
The Lees’ hot pepper relish, a Southern concoction called chow chow, had just won the blue ribbon at a Greensboro fair and Jerry Lee excitedly affixed a homemade label to a jar and showed it to his father, Doc, the family patriarch whose vegetable garden had produced the assorted peppers, onions and tomatoes that boiled down to a stew on his kitchen stove.
Jerry Lee told his father, a carpenter and brick mason from the Summerfield area, that they should go into business. The old man just smiled.
The year was 1977.
It would be another 20 years before Jerry and his wife, Sharon, started plans for the business in earnest. Making chow chow from the assorted vegetables culled from the garden before the first frost hit had been a family activity for decades. For most of his 90 years Doc would just give jars of the stuff away to anybody he met. So when Jerry and Sharon started looking for a company to make their product, there was no question but that the company would be named after Jerry’s father.
‘“We grew a garden like we had to feed everybody,’” says Jerry Lee, now 58, of the time when he was growing up. ‘“We’d have a big kitchen table full of tomatoes, peppers and onions. We knew that if people came by they were going to leave with something.
‘“He would grow odd things: habaÃ±eros, serranos, tabascos,’” he adds. ‘“He would grow Japanese horseradish. Just to see what it would look like.’”
Before the Lees went into business, they made their chow chow by running all their end-of-season vegetables through a sausage grinder and dumping the contents in a big pot that would boil on their kitchen stove. A cousin to salsa, chow chow is generally considered a sauce of the South. It differs from salsa in that it also uses cabbage. Also, Doc Lee’s chow chow tastes pretty mild compared to the sweat-inducing hot pepper sauces of the Southwest.
It’s also generally true that the farther south one goes, the hotter the sauce. Jerry Lee adds that chow chows made in more northerly areas like Pennsylvania use bigger vegetable chunks than their Southern counterparts.
One of the concessions to commerce is that the Lees have decided to market their product as ‘hot pepper relish’ because those outside of Southern food folkways tend to look askance at something called ‘chow chow.’
Now in 2005 the Lees’ kitchen in their Westwood house, which is tucked between Bryan Boulevard and Battleground Avenue, fairly sparkles with neatness, befitting the residence of an IBM internal auditor who works from home.
There is no tomato juice slopping off the counter top, no piles of jalapeÃ±os cluttering the kitchen table, no cut onions stinging the eyes. Lee opens a jar of hot pepper relish and puts out a bowl of Ruffles potato chips for a visiting reporter to sample.
The relish is tangy and sweet. It hits the mouth with a refreshing initial surge and then only as an aftereffect does the heat radiate through the glands. Medium and mild versions use more red peppers and less jalapeÃ±os, and taste more sweet than anything else.
For someone like me, who has been steeped in the chili flavorings of northern New Mexico, Doc Lee’s lines of relishes have a picklish taste.
To go into business the Lees had to first come up with a recipe because Doc Lee had always just thrown in whatever was at hand. With both husband and wife working full time at their regular jobs they also needed to find a company to make a version of Doc’s chow chow that tasted reasonably similar to the original.
In late 2000 they found an Amish company in Intercourse, Pa. that pickled green tomatoes. They rushed out a test batch and Jerry Lee took samples of both the homemade and the outsourced product around to his friends for a taste test.
‘“Most of them said, ‘Yeah, it’s comparable, maybe a little better,”” he said. ‘“They said, ‘This stays on the chip a little better.’ Ours was more liquid.’”
Lee’s job once required a lot of travel, so he would take jars around the world with him to hand out. Now on evenings and weekends he loads up the car with chow chow and drive around the state looking for gourmet shops willing to buy a case or two.
‘“I’ve got a friend in Florida,’” Jerry Lee says. ‘“I told him, ‘I’m going to send you some chow chow.’ He said, ‘What am I going to do with cat food?’ Now I’ve got him eating it on hotdogs. I’m trying to get him to eat a little healthier, so now I’ve turned him on to Boca burgers.’”
Chow chow was originally used by Southern cooks with pinto beans, black-eyed peas and boiled greens, Lee says. He also recommends mixing it with cream cheese, using it as shrimp cocktail sauce and adding it to spaghetti sauce.
Doc Lee’s Pepper Co. now sells 600 to 800 cases of product a year, Jerry Lee says. Most of the stores that currently carry their chow chow are local. The Lees are looking for a distributor so they can cut down on the legwork.
Four years into their business, the company is going through some awkward transitions.
‘“As we would give it to people they said, ‘Can we get this more than once a year?”” Jerry Lee says. ‘“We knew nothing about the food industry.’”
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