Remember the golden age of school lunches? Nirvana was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and there was no better jelly than Welch’s grape. I’d wager there weren’t many, if any, grapes in the jar back in the day, but no one cared. Put it on bread with peanut butter, or cream cheese, or butter, and that sandwich became the soft, soggy concoction that was a staple of our school lunches for years. Put it in your Davy Crockett lunch box with a pint of whole milk and you were good to go.
Pretty soon we expanded our horizon: strawberry, raspberry, blueberry. These were called jellies, or jams, or preserves. To this day, I’ll bet most of us don’t know the difference. By any other name, it was still good old PB&J, every day.
Someone gave me chutney as a Christmas gift this year. It was obviously re-gifted, which is OK, I guess. I mean, it wasn’t as bad as the electric nostril hair remover I got one year from B.T. Sneed. “Are you trying to tell me something?” I asked him.
“Just that they were out of the nasal hairbrush and comb set,” he replied.
I have never ingested chutney, but it made me wonder enough to read the definition: “a condiment made with fruit.”
Then why didn’t we have PB and chutney growing up? If you would have asked the average kid 20 years ago what chutney was, nobody would have known. “It’s a city in India near Istanbul,” I would have said authoritatively. Then again, I thought a condiment was a thing you kept in your wallet to keep girls from getting pregnant.
I opened up my gift: small jars of chutney with flavors like Avocado-Ginger Raita, Green Cilantro and Cumin, Spicy, Sweet and Sour Pineapple-Jalapeño Relish, Tart Apple and Coconut Chutney and so on. What, no liver?
Where were all those things when they were making all the good jelly, like Welch’s?
Imagine what it is like to be a chutney farmer. All the producers of jelly, jam, preserves, and chutney go to the wholesale market every morning. The Welch’s guy buys up the grapes; meanwhile, the team from Smuckers is trying to corner the raspberry market. The big pie chains are in a furious war over the apples and the peaches. Blueberries are flitting around, flirting with jam and jelly buyers and the popover people.
Soon the folks from Kraft, Polaner, and Knott’s Berry Farm have filled their trucks with every sweet fruit on the warehouse floor. All the pie makers are loaded up with cherry and peach and exotic fruits like Boston Cream. Then, and only then, a few stragglers meekly come out of the shadows, combing the nearly empty shelves and the floor.
These are the chutney people.
They gather up the beetroot and the brown bananas and the bitter apples; they mix in the green teas and weird herbs and spices.
Last but not yeast (yes, I mean yeast) the rhubarb buyer comes out, picks some off the floor or out of the garbage, and sneaks away.
Did this ever happen to you as a kid? Your uncle takes you to the luncheonette for some pie á la mode. You dream of what flavor ice cream you’ll order, on what kind of pie. You walk in and all the other kids have apple crumb with chocolate ice cream or cherry with vanilla and so on. But when you sit down, the gum chewing waitress says, “I only have rhubarb!” WTF?
Rhubarb, as near as I can figure, is leaves that fell off the trees in the backyard a month ago, the ones the dogs have been playing with (and going on) ever since. Or maybe rhubarb is something you string atop the steel fences in penitentiaries. It’s not a reward, it’s a punishment.
I can still hear my mom. “OH NO MISTER, NO APPLE PIE FOR YOU. NOT AFTER THAT LITTLE STUNT YOU PULLED. YOU GET A PIECE OF RHUBARB PIE WITH THE POOPY ICE CREAM AND THEN GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
They ship out the chutney to the place where all the other crappy gifts earmarked for regifting go. Ho, Ho, Ho.
Hey. It takes a little selling, but it works. I gave Tom McMorrow, our beat reporter, the prune chutney. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” I explained.