Move closer. That’s right…Move closer…towards the relish tray. Look around. Notice the buck’s gallant stare overhead from his glassy eyes. You are sitting across from your uncle and your uncle’s neighbor. Is it possible that you are in a supper club before the main course? Did you drive out to a fish fry and forget about savoring the appetizer first? Are you with friends and family for another Friday night ritual? What do you see? Are there tables set up like a wedding reception hall? Did your family order an appetizer? Or was it already on the table (much like chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant) when you arrived? You look up. The relish tray is strutting gallantly, gliding gracefully in the server’s hand. The server seamlessly sets it down on the table. You were talking with the people at your table. Then, your attention turned back to the table in front of you. Don’t look away from the relish tray. Don’t be shy. Reach towards the relish tray with two nimble fingers. Relish it! That’s why it has the name!
Lo and behold! It actually was there before the main course arrived. It mysteriously appeared there by sleight of hand. Poof! Look around you at the tables at the supper club. What do you see? The relish tray. What do you smell? Is that the sour odor of vinegar expressing its pickling potential? Now, move your wistful fingers towards the relish tray. You won’t drop the crinkle cut carrots, I promise. The crinkles prevent that from ever happening.
Synonymous with supper club culture, the relish tray is not far down the list of culinary symbols that typify Midwestern cuisine. For Wisconsin, you might suggest beer, brats, and cheese. And you would not be wrong. Not disregarding these staples of a Wisconsinite’s diet, the supper club’s iconographic equivalent to Wisconsin’s relationship to cheese is the relish tray. Whether you prepare a relish tray for a family get-together or order one in a supper club, rest assured that no one relish tray supplants another. America’s European heritage has given many different kinds of dishes for Americans to enjoy. Specific American regions then have reimagined them in a melting pot of culinary landmarks. The relish tray is one of these landmarks, reimagined. It has even been incorporated into the prelude of the Thanksgiving feast.
It is difficult to pin the relish tray’s origins down to a single country. In Italy, the relish tray concept is encapsulated in “giardiniera,” meaning from the garden. Typically, fresh vegetables, often times very spicy peppers “from the garden,” are soaked in oil or vinegar and used to enhance a salad or a pasta dish. Again, raw bell peppers can be substituted on a relish tray for spicier peppers and vice versa, depending on your palate and the crowd who is going to consume it. Another interpretation of the relish tray includes utilizing several different kinds of pickles. Justin Hoelzen, a member of the Produce Staff, recalls his grandmother, of German-Swiss heritage, making a relish tray consisting of mainly pickles. The relish tray beckons to our creative side and also to the vegetables available in our own garden. Necessity, the mother of invention, requires the use of these fresh vegetables.
One of the traditional appetizers in Wisconsin has been and still is the relish tray. Used to prime the appetite for what is to come, the relish tray functions as the first course of a three-part experience either at home, at a get-together, or at a supper club. The supper club, a “nice” place to eat dinner on a Friday evening, conjures up by definition a familiar eating experience week in and week out with those you know. While the “nice” place to eat concept conjures up stereotypes of the Midwest, it inspires a closeness of living in a place where everyone knows everyone else. It might make you feel uncomfortable at first (it made me feel that way growing upin Michigan and Wisconsin), but it also might make you feel at ease. Stemming from this is the idea of comfort food. You see the same people. You say the same things. You eat the same things. Yes, you participate in the ritual of the supper club: a celebration of family, friends, and community. The relish tray symbolizes all of this. From a remote unincorporated village in Minnesota to the urban environment of a downtown Chicago restaurant, the relish tray possesses one common element: vegetables arranged artfully for a communal culinary experience.
This begs the question, though, if you happen to be making one. Where do you procure good quality vegetables that you can assemble according to the mosaic tendency of the relish tray? It is a piece of artwork after all. Putting together a relish tray can be done a thousand different ways. However, I would like to propose a framework or springboard which will serve as a starting point. By no means is what follows the only way to go about it (I know of course that the Midwesterners reading this didn’t need me to spell that out for them).
First of all, the Co-op offers organic produce with which to piece together a relish tray for college graduation, a birthday party, a weekend sporting event, or just plain grilling out with friends. The second part is simply deciding what vegetables to use. To get started, stop by the discount produce bins, located in the Produce department underneath the center produce displays. They may contain some inspiration but, if not, it never hurts to take a look. Another helpful approach is to think about this decision in terms of what vegetables will be raw or pickled, and which ones will be grilled. A traditional raw relish tray, for instance, might consist of pickled crinkle-cut carrots; raw, sliced radishes; raw broccoli florets; baby corn (if you must!); and cherry tomatoes all centered around a dip, most likely ranch.
For the dip at the epicenter of the relish tray, one possibility is to use chopped scallions or chives and to mix them with the sour cream of your choice. Even if you are lactose intolerant or simply avoiding milk sugar, the Dairy department offers lactose-free sour creams from Green Valley Organics. So, no excuses! There are also dry mixes in the chip aisle that you add either to Greek yogurt or sour cream. The mixes you add to Greek yogurt give the relish tray a nudge in the direction of Mediterranean food, again highlighting its European roots.
One tasty variation might consist of olives and feta to add a rush of Mediterranean flavor to enlist with the sour flavor profile of pickled vegetables. Valbreso sheep feta, a French feta packaged by the Cheese Department, has balanced, floral notes, which neutralize the saltiness of Kalamata olives. Other olive offerings include dried and cured Thasos olives, Italian Castelvetrano olives, or my favorite: French green olives with a hint of lemon that refreshes the palate in the face of the briny saltiness. If you are looking for a meatier type of olive, the black Cerignola fits the bill. Finally, Peppadew Piquante peppers, available on the Olive Bar, will add a nice spicy snap and broaden the range of flavors for the relish tray. Other varieties of olives from Spain, such as Arbiquina olives, in addition to Cipollini onions soaked in balsamic vinegar are also available on the Olive Bar.
While pickled vegetables usually make their way into a relish tray, there is no need to overwhelm the palate with pickled everything. Simple, raw vegetables like radishes, celery with cream cheese, bell peppers, or broccoli as well as cooked, sliced beets and hard-boiled eggs complement the saltier, more vinegary flavors on a relish tray. The sweet pop of a tomato cherry in your mouth is a great counterbalance to the salty flavor profile of the parade of pickled relish tray vegetables. Simply using cornichons for the pickled vegetable option in a relish tray easily suffices. Pile them neatly and watch and then listen. Watch as two fingers deftly lift up a cornichon and then listen to the crunch of a happy relish tray consumer. If you are feeling ambitious and have the time, deviled eggs are also a possibility for the terrain of the relish tray. It is also worth noting that there are health benefits to eating raw vegetables. Unconsciously engrained within the conception of the relish tray is the very idea of consuming raw vegetables. How is that for a happy coincidence! Rather than forcing an idea upon a dish (eating raw vegetables), the relish tray surreptitiously incorporates a healthy principle into food consumption. Additionally, eating pickled vegetables generally helps digestion for the courses to follow.
When preparing a relish tray in the summer time, aluminum foil, butter, salt, and pepper (and even some garlic for the garlic lovers out there!) go a long way. Cauliflower, broccoli, sliced carrots, or even parsnips are all par for the course. Whatever vegetables are in season—whether it be asparagus or jicama—none can really be excluded the opportunity to sit delectably in a summer relish tray. Nothing beats that grilled, smoky flavor. Creativity coupled with in-season vegetables will open new avenues to think through the relish tray.
Another Arena of Exploration
Making your own pickled vegetables is quite simple. There are a multitude of recipes online with various spins on the original. Carrots, cucumbers, beets, or the vegetable of your choice can all be pickled for your personal spin on the relish tray. The sky is truly the limit. If you are feeling adventurous, try pickling something you may not associate with pickling. Be creative! Pickle an artichoke or cauliflower. Or, pickle a herring as a tribute to Minnesota, Wisconsin’s neighbor who also cultivates the supper club culture. The question is not to pickle or not to pickle. The question is always what to pickle. You might even discover a new favorite pickled vegetable among family and friends. Pickle to impress, and impress you just may.
Putting it all together
The last part of the relish tray is the tray itself: its mosaic presentation. Piecing it together in terms of color juxtaposition is the icing on the cake. Whether it is a family heirloom from Grandma’s dish collection, or a tray discovered at a thrift store, do not discount the importance of the relish tray’s physical appearance by putting it on a dinner plate. That is a no no. Instead, talk to your neighbors and talk to your family. That is the audience and inspiration for the relish tray to begin with. They will appreciate a fine presentation of raw and pickled vegetable goodness. It may even convince the young ones to dig in. Or maybe not…
Now that you have spent a good deal of time reading about the relish tray, it is high time you moved on to the rest of your meal. Enjoy the companionship inside the supper club, and don’t be afraid to reinvent the relish tray for a new generation. Remember it is a token of the past and can be reinvented in this land we call America. Prove the folk song true that this indeed is our land. Our culinary land. And good luck in all your relish tray creations!