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Voices Spring-Summer 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Foodways column Grandmother’s Chili Sauce by Carol Gregson here.
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Voices SS2012


Volume 38

Grandmother's Chili Sauce by Carol Gregson

Foodways Editor’s Note—An old column returns with new life. The new Foodways seeks guest authors with heirloom recipes to share, along with the stories that keep these recipes alive and meaningful in our families and communities.

My mother-in-law’s name was Fern. She set an example in her mastery of all the survival techniques that are necessary for living in the Adirondacks. She had been the daughter of a farmer—a herdsman, actually, who had moved his family from farm to farm while he gleaned all the ginseng in the area. When the ginseng had all been harvested in one area, he’d find a new job at another farm and start over. Greg [the author’s husband] had lots of happy memories of the summers that he spent at his grandparents’ farms. I think the last one was somewhere near Cherry Valley, south of Cooperstown.

Fern was one of five children, and all of them were good at coping. When I met her, in 1945, she was keeping a fire going in a big black cook stove, carrying buckets of water from the well, maintaining the outhouse, stoking the fireplace, and generally “ruling the roost.” Greg’s father, when he came in from his latest business deal, hunting session, or card game, was trained to remove his shoes. Actually, when he was particularly late, he might throw his hat in first. If it came sailing out again, he knew he’d need to go and get a peace offering of some kind.

Fern kept an immaculate house, with polished floors and furniture, and squeakyclean windows with starched curtains. Also, she was a good cook. She usually had a wellstocked pantry. Her husband enjoyed shopping and kept her well provided. However, he was away a lot, and if she ran out of anything, it was a three-mile trip to town, and she did not drive.

Whenever we happened by, she could be counted upon to whip up a good meal with whatever was handy. Her biscuits were especially good, and there was a never-ending supply of jams and jellies.

She was particularly good at scrounging in the woods. She knew where all the berries were—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and even wild grapes. During apple season, she hiked around sampling all the wild apple trees to find the best ones. There were apple pies, applecranberry pies, applesauce, canned apple juice (to use for pectin when making jellies), and at Thanksgiving, there were pickled crab apples, a real delicacy.

She taught her grandchildren to enjoy sweet fern tea, and when in season, cooked wild greens: pigweed, dandelion greens, milkweed, and fiddlehead ferns. She knew where they grew, when to pick them, and how to cook them. She also made hand cream using the fat of muskrat. And, of course, she cooked all the fish and wild life that the hunters provided.

There were goats for milk, and for awhile, there were two pigs and a few ducks. I recall a few down-filled pillows.

At the same time, she kept a huge garden. When the asparagus and rhubarb were in season, we were swamped with them. She even grew celery, a real feat in this climate. When the cucumbers were ready, there was a siege of pickling.

As the years went by, they dug a well in their basement and acquired plumbing, so Fern no longer needed to carry water and service the outhouse. Then she decided that all the canning that she was doing needed to be moved out of her immaculate kitchen. There was all that room in the basement, and all it needed was an outside entrance. There was a big mound of dirt in front of where that entrance should be, so she started digging. Eventually, she got that entrance. Then Mr. Gregson acquired a nice used gas range and installed it for her. During the pickling season, you could go down there and smell that brine, and look forward to all those good pickles.

The crowning glory of the tomato crop was her chili sauce, and she was pretty famous for it. I never acquired a flair for canning of any kind and had a rather disastrous experience trying to do pickling, so we learned to look forward to grandmother’s chili sauce. Now that Fern is gone, my daughter Kris has acquired the chili sauce talent, so we count on her to supply the family with what we all refer to as:

Grandmother’s Chili Sauce

12 large ripe tomatoes
1-1/2 cup brown sugar
3 onions
3 teaspoons salt
2 sweet green peppers
2 sweet red peppers
2 tablespoons pickling spices
3 tablespoons celery seed
2 cups vinegar

Peel and dice the tomatoes. Also dice the peppers and chop the onions. Put everything in a big pot, including the spices, in a cheesecloth bag, and simmer for a few hours until you like the looks of it. Then ladle it into sterilized jars and seal immediately. It should make four or five pints.


Carol Gregson
Photo by Gene Ostertag, courtesy of Carol Gregson.
Carol Gregson was born in 1925 in Seattle, Washington, and worked as a draftsman and illustrator for Boeing Aircraft during World War II. In 1945, she married a sailor from New York State, and they came to the Adirondack Mountains to begin their family. Seven children later, when the youngest child was ten, Carol’s husband Greg died at the age of 50. She has carried on for another lifetime since then and lived to tell her tales of creative careers, brilliant friends, and progeny beyond measure. Now in her eighties, she says “I’m not looking for work any more. I’m peddling books!”

“Grandmother’s Chili Sauce” comes from Carol’s forthcoming book, Wet Socks, due in March 2013.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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