Everyone has foods they remember from their childhood. A friend on Facebook just conducted a survey of foods that remind us each of our grandmothers, and I had a tough time picking just one. I have deep food love, not so much from Grandma in particular, but from my family's culinary history in general. Sentimental attachment to food is one of life's great gifts.
No food in my family's past, though, has quite the grip on us that Ritter Relish has. That's probably because nearly all of the other iconic foods in our family are made from scratch, so we have always been able to reliably re-create them and we have never had to live without them. But Ritter Relish is a commercial condiment, and when it disappeared from grocery store shelves, my family was bereft. We don't even know when it happened. Was it in the 70's? In the 80's? We tended to have several jars on hand, so it took us awhile to really understand that it was utterly unique, and it was gone for good.
Ritter Relish was a green tomato relish, and it was less sweet than ordinary American relish. My mother's maiden name was Ritter, and so we felt like Ritter Relish was our relish. We had a stock family meal that we ate a few times a month: Thomas' English Muffins, fork split and toasted, with Ritter Relish on one side, ketchup on one or both sides, maybe a fresh slice of onion, and a juicy hamburger in the middle. One big bowl of salad to share. Heaven. My father was integral to this memory; he always made the salad while Mom fried the burgers, and he loved his condiments; creating towering burgers that dripped all over the plate. He died when I was seven years old, and from that time forward, I subconsciously considered Ritter Relish to be a link directly back to memories of dinners with him.
When I graduated from college and started full-time work, I finally had enough lull in my life to fully understand what the loss of Ritter Relish meant to me. It meant I could never go home. I made me sad in ways that no other single thing could. At first I tried to just come to terms with the loss. Then, for a few years, I bought green tomato relish any time I found it, at a fair, at a store, online. It was never the same. Finally, I started experimenting with recipes. I gravitated towards old recipes, reasoning that, since Ritter Relish appeared in the 50's or 60's, it must come from vintage stock.
One year, I made a picallili recipe that was too sweet. Another, I made a Fanny Farmer relish recipe that was too spicy. But each was close enough to trigger a faint memory, so finally I combined several recipes to create something that really did remind me of the old Ritter Relish. Of course, it has been many years. I can't vouch for sure that this recipe truly brings back the original. The thing I can say is this: when I eat this relish, on a burger set on a Thomas' muffin with ketchup and maybe a slice of onion, I close my eyes, and my father is there at the table.
My family members all use no relish but this on their burgers, and for them, too, it is close enough that it brings back memories. When they run out, they ask for more. So, with no further ado, I will recopy my recipe here. It has lots of silly ingredients -- both white and apple vinegar, both cloves and allspice. It is that way because I blended several recipes, and while I'm sure it's unnecessarily complicated, I don't dare mess with it. If, like our family, you pine for the taste of Ritter Relish, give it a try, and please tell me if it reminds you of the original.
Thanks, and here it is:
"Ritter" Green Tomato Relish
4 lb fresh green tomatoes (post-frost will NOT do)
2 1/4 lb onions
1 1/4 lb sweet peppers (red & green) w/ seeds
2/3 cup coarse sea salt (for draining)
1 1/2 cup white 5% vinegar
2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tbsp prepared mustard (ordinary yellow mustard is fine)
1 3/4 tsp dry mustard (I use Coleman's)
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp celery seeds
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
3/4 tsp ground cloves
2 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
Chop veggies to relish consistency (1/4 inch dice, a food processor works fine), put in a big "nonreactive" (non-aluminum) bowl, add salt, blend, cover & refrigerate 24 hours. Drain, wash moderately w/ cold H2O (i.e. get a lot of the salt off but you don't have to go crazy), squeeze out excess water. Blend remaining ingredients in a pot, cook until sugars have dissolved. Add squeezed veggies and bring to a boil, then simmer at a good clip, stirring, for about 10 minutes until the peppers have changed color. Divide among clean 1/2 pint canning jars, leave 1/4 inch of headspace. Seal, boil 15 minutes in water bath. Cool & store at least two weeks to allow flavors to develop.