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Cook relishes state competition
Family recipe for chow-chow shines
chow chow 4 jd
Erwin Cruz talks with his wife Theresa about his family's chow-chow recipe. - photo by Jim Dean
When Erwin Cruz was young, he would sit on a hill and look down at his grandmother’s house while she cooked chow-chow in a pot outside.

“Everybody got one jar,” Cruz said. “I used to get my jar and I would keep it in the refrigerator. But then my sister and brother and mom and aunts and cousins would eat all theirs up and they’d come and steal mine.

“I said where the heck can I hide my chow-chow? Right up under her stairs that led into the house ... that’s where I hid my chow-chow. And the only person that knew where I hid it — and I knew she’d never tell — was my dog.”

It’s been a long time since Cruz had to hide his grandmother’s favorite recipe. In fact, the Forsyth County resident is now the one cooking up the family relish, though it’s not just for family and friends anymore.

Annie Lee’s Gourmet Chow-Chow Relish is a finalist in the University of Georgia Flavor of Georgia competition.

Cruz is competing in the jams, jellies and sauces category against Tyrone Casteel’s Extreme Tomato Chutney Chipotle and Olive Affairs’ Gourmet Olive Tapenade.  

“I’ve always wanted to market it,” Cruz said, “and I just was reading in the Market Bulletin one day and it said they’re having this competition, and I just said what the heck, I’ll enter it.

“And darned if I didn’t get a notice that I was one of the finalists.”  

Cruz said he’s picky about food, which helps him make a perfect batch of chow-chow every time.

While it can go on just about anything, chow-chow is his favorite topper for hot dogs, hamburgers and bologna sandwiches.

The recipe, named for Cruz’s grandmother Annie Lee, was her dying gift to him. It had been in the family for generations.

“She told me where it was in her house and I went into the house and got it,” Cruz said. “And everybody got mad at me, because see now I make it and I dole it out to them.”

Judging will be March 15 in Atlanta and winners will be announced the following day.

Judges include Gov. Sonny Perdue and Jamie and Bobby Deen, more commonly known as the Deen Brothers, the sons of famous Savannah restaurant owner and TV personality Paula Deen.

Regardless of whether he wins, Cruz said he plans to start selling his chow-chow more aggressively.

“I did it at one time and sold a little bit on ... the Internet, but I had a stroke and that kind of curtailed that for a while,” he said. “I lost my memory, so good thing I wrote that recipe down, huh?”

Cruz already beat out about a dozen competitors to make it to the final round. He said he feels good about his odds.

“I’ve always known it was good stuff,” he said, recalling how he used to make it for co-workers at a fire department in Rockdale County, where he worked for 20 years.

“They would bug me all the time to make it,” he said. “I said if that many people liked it just right here in the fire department, everybody will like it.”