I wasn’t born with the proverbial green thumb, though I’ve tried hard to cultivate it over the years.

After dispatching countless withered pots of once-flourishing plant life to the agricultural graveyard (an entire corner of my ample backyard), I finally had to acquiesce – I will never be a successful gardener.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not willing to sweat for more than about five minutes. Maybe it’s those darn mosquitoes, their bellies blooming with my Sicilian blood as if they were filling flasks for a long Saharan journey.

Or it could simply come down to a plant’s reliance on a certain modicum of TLC, which includes skillfully timed waterings that strike a balance between too much and not enough. This is definitely not my skill set. You’ve heard of master gardeners? Well, meet a master drowner and master dehydrator of tender, leafy things.

My talented friends (of whom a few are, indeed, master gardeners) know I’m a ready, shameless receptacle for their overflow of veggies: tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, peppers, tomatoes, peas, lettuce, greens and tomatoes. (Hint: I really like home-grown tomatoes, so if you have any. …)

But on to my point. If you’re a vegetable gardener, it will soon be that time when the kitchen counter is overrun with the last of your hand-tended bounty. What to do? The question brings to mind a Southern staple that was born of the need to waste not: chow chow.

Now, chow chow, like our darling pimento cheese and deviled eggs, is not an invention of the South. But it’s another good example of our knack for adopting dishes and making them our own. It is thought that the origins of this spicy relish go back to a time of great industry, when Chinese immigrants came to this country to escape hard times. To earn a living, they signed on to do heavy labor, working to build the railways that crisscross the country.

Their culinary contributions included a relish made from orange peel and ginger – a concoction food historians cite as the forerunner to what we call chow chow. (The name is said to be related to “chou,” the French word for “cabbage.” Not sure how the French figure into this, but it’s a refined touch, don’t you think?)

Those same historians theorize that the chow chow of the South – made primarily with a base of chopped cabbage and/or green tomatoes – was the result of having to find something to do with harvests gathered under the threat of approaching frosts. Cabbages, unripe tomatoes, onions and peppers, finely shredded or chopped, salted down and drained, simmered with spices in a pot of vinegar and sugar, and then canned for future use seemed a nifty solution.

It was also a tasty one. Nothing perks up a dish of field peas or collard greens better than a spoon or two of chow chow. Nearly every proper South Carolina pantry houses jars of the stuff, and family recipes are closely guarded secrets. You can also find it easily at farmers markets and grocery stores in the pickle section, specifically.

Everyone who chows down on chow chow harbors an opinion on what constitutes the best: tanginess, sweetness, a little peppery heat, a bit of crunch. Personally, I like a good balance between tang and sweet, with a good kick of jalapeno or other capsaicin carriers. Why should you care? Well, you shouldn’t. Unless you’re a vegetable gardener planning on filling your fall and winter larder with chow chow. In which case, look me up. Fresh or freshly canned, I’m not picky when it comes to gifts from the vegetable garden.

Have a favorite chow chow recipe? Share it on the Carolina Spoon Facebook page at facebook.com/SClibby.1111.

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Libby Wiersema writes about dining, food trends and the state’s culinary history for Discover South Carolina as well as other print and online media. Contact her at libbyscarolinaspoon@gmail.com.

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