The Frugal Lesson in My Grandma's Delicious Relish

credit: Anne Worner

The past has so much to teach us about simple, frugal, and wise living that goes beyond anything that our gadget-obsessed society can ever achieve.

Last week I was on a quest to recreate a memory – the taste of my grandmother’s Thousand Island Relish that accompanied nearly every meal I ate in her home as a child. My grandmother is still alive and well, thank goodness, but no longer does she go to the annual effort of making her famous relish. Now I understand why. It took at least an hour and a half of diligent chopping and one very achy forearm to reduce the 8 huge cucumbers, 12 giant onions, 1 cauliflower, and 4 peppers to the small dice needed for the right consistency.

I added spices, sugar, and vinegar, and simmered the enormous vat of relish until the smell of brine had permeated the entire house. I canned long into the evening, sterilizing and processing jar after jar. The basement is now full of relish – far more than my family and I could ever consume in a year. Anyone who knows me can expect a jar of relish as a gift at some point.

Finally, when I scooped some out to eat with my grilled cheese sandwich, I knew that all the hard work was worth it. A single mouthful transported me to the past, to those relaxed lunches eaten at the worn wooden table in the middle of my grandma’s farmhouse kitchen, when I sat on a rickety wooden spindle chair with chipped blue paint, and she fed me sandwiches with relish, accompanied by pickled beets and dilly beans and grape juice mixed with ginger ale.

I contemplated everything that had gone into making that bit of relish on my fork – a bike ride to the market to stock up missing ingredients, assembling the scattered pieces of canning equipment, the time spent actively making; and what it all meant – having an endless supply of homemade relish made with locally sourced ingredients in reusable glass containers and the revival of a generations-old recipe to feed my own family.

A somewhat disturbing realization crept into my brain.

Here I am, a young woman in the 21st century who considers herself to be modern, connected, and up-to-date. I’m a proud treehugger, both in my profession and at home; but the more thinking I do about green living and the more I try to implement changes in my lifestyle to have the smallest possible impact on the planet, the more I realize that the things I do are archaic, rather than innovative. They’ve all been done before, out of necessity by people who had far less and none of the so-called green technology we enjoy nowadays.

The past isn’t glamorous. The pioneer life is harsh, challenging, and full of manual labour. And yet, on my quest for the greenest lifestyle, I find myself putting in long hours of working with my hands. I knead, shape, and bake bread. I peel, chop, stew, and can tomatoes. I hang out laundry to dry and iron out the wrinkles. I mix and incubate yogurt in glass jars. I mend holes and sew buttons on clothes. I wash dishes in the sink to save on water and energy. I haul my kids in a bike trailer to pick up groceries and we walk to the library to stock up on new books to read.

Don’t get me wrong; I still appreciate the countless luxuries of modern life. But when I really want to make a difference for the better, I do not reach for my iPhone and start flitting through my Twitter feed. Instead, I find myself travelling back in time with my actions. I’ve come to believe that it’s actually the past that can teach us the most about simplified and green living, rather than technological ‘advancements.’ It is these least automated, most hands-on activities that can remind us to live simply, frugally, and wisely in a world of excess.