Volunteer Tomatoes: Chutney and an Echo of History

Except for monuments, and stately homes with the staff to support them, I disapprove of lawns. They are finicky to maintain, thirsty for water, ravenous for labor—a remnant of 18th-century English fashions in landscape, fitted poorly into the climate and culture of the New World. So when my spouse and I moved into the in-town bungalow where we live, we ripped up the scrubby, light-starved patch that passed for a lawn, and planted it in shrubs and flowers instead.

I was weeding this attempt at a cottage garden in September, untangling tendrils of a climber rose to wrap around an archway, when I brushed against something that gave off an instantly familiar scent: spicy, herbal, green. I looked around, and realized that a tomato plant had sprouted in a patch of sun between two bushes.

I certainly hadn’t placed it there. Most of my garden is shaded intermittently by oak trees, and the light is too dappled to give vegetables what they need. My neighbor had tomatoes, though, and the phone line ran right overhead; probably a greedy crow or squirrel had stolen a fruit, sat just above to eat it, and dropped some seeds. The plant was only a foot tall, and the season was already too late to expect much, but there was no reason to pull it up prematurely. I resolved to keep an eye on it, and let it go.

Picture of green tomatoes

Photograph by Maryn McKenna

A month later, the first freeze threatened, and I went back to the spot to see whether the plant had survived. While I was not paying attention, it had mantled two abelias and surged against a baby maple in a tangle of green. I sorted through the branches and found juvenile fruits, arrayed in ranks like cherry tomatoes but dimpled and long as though they meant to be Romas. When I picked them, I ended up with a medium bowlful.

I brought them out of the crisp air and evaluated them. They were thick-walled and so immature they had more texture than taste, too sturdy to make good salsa and too small to fry. I rooted through the refrigerator and cabinets; I had apples, onions, fresh ginger, brown sugar, coriander, cardamom and vinegar. I would make chutney.

You might have to be English—or raised in England as I was, or Anglophile at least—to understand the importance of chutney. In America, chutney is one of those perplexing exoticisms that linger in the back of the pantry because no one can remember who bought it; it seems to get dragged out at the holidays to be smeared over cream cheese and then stashed back in the dark again until the lid crusts shut and it can be thrown away without guilt.

In England, though, chutney is essential. It is in every “ploughman’s lunch,” the pub basic of bread and cheese. It shows up in supermarket sandwiches, finely chopped and layered on top of cheddar. It flavors potato chips. It is as basic a condiment as ketchup is to us, for much the same reason: a blast of sweetness and acid meant to enliven a dull wodge of bread or meat.

Except for two differences. No one but a chef, or the most stringent foodie, would make their own ketchup, but plenty of people in England make chutney; endless varieties of it—mixed vegetable, onion, tomato, apple, damson plum—fill tables at farmers’ markets and county fairs. And while we seldom stop to think about the unclear origins of ketchup (is it Indonesian? Chinese?), no one in England is mystified about the source of chutney. It is loved uncritically as a remnant of Britain’s colonial past, as familiar and unexamined as kedgeree for breakfast or take-away from the balti house down the street.

Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Photograph by Maryn McKenna

British chutney of course has as little to do with the Indian dishes that inspired it as curry does. (Authenticity is not the point.) But it is threaded through English culture from the time of the Raj. I like knowing that Thackeray referred to it in Vanity Fair in 1848, and that physician Robert Blackham (M.D., M.R.C.P.Ed., D.P.H.,F.R.F.P.S.) told the British Medical Journal in 1939 it was an excellent treatment for seasickness. (Eww.) That the World War II Ministry of Food so wanted people to get every calorie from their Victory gardens that it sent out a chutney recipe for using up unripe tomatoes, and that Alf Wight, the Yorkshire veterinarian who wrote under the name James Herriott, was only able to choke down a breakfast of cold boiled bacon fat because a jar of piccalilli—chutney made with ground mustard and turmeric—was nearby.

Chutney has a long written documentation in England, though some of it is in language that would make us wince now. Hobson-Jobson, a 1903 dictionary of Anglo-Indian colloquialisms, defines chutney as “A kind of strong relish, made of a number of condiments and fruits, &c., used in India, and more especially by Mahommedans, and the merits of which are now well known in England.” Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, written in 1845 and one of the first English cookbooks, specifies raisins, crabapples, ginger and sugar, vinegar and salt, and adds: “This favorite Oriental sauce is compounded in a variety of ways; but some kind of acid fruit is essential to it.”

Chutney is so familiar in England that I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me to make it, though someone must have—my brother’s nanny, maybe, or a boarding-school classmate’s mother. It was just a thing people did when the garden declined toward autumn, as regular as making jam in late summer or marmalade when the citrus came in. I put mine together by instinct, simmered it until it was thick, jarred it and stashed it in the fridge to age.

After a month, I cracked it open. It was light and complicated, savory and fragrant, sweet-sour and crunchy. It happened to be ready just before Thanksgiving, so when I made the essential, next-day turkey sandwich, I swapped out the leftover cranberry sauce and used the chutney instead.

The combination was delicious, and I was mildly smug to have preserved some nutrition and value that would otherwise have gone to the compost pile. But what I liked best was knowing that I was reiterating what the English had done, to make chutney in the first place: reviving a memory of something lost and valuable, adapting it to my ingredients and skills, and making it mine.

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