A tribute to a disappearing dining tradition
The rules of the relish tray are a bit loose, starting with the name. Very few relish trays contain actual relish, defined here as minced and pickled vegetables in a jar. In my mind, a relish tray almost always includes carrots. Often there are pickles and celery, cut in sharp lines, sometimes even on a diagonal if the maker is feeling fancy. Olives are common, as are pimientos and pepperoncinis. But one thing a relish tray should never have, as a rule, is a price tag.
I’m not cheap when it comes to food. Now and then, I might pay $22 for a stingy portion of what’s billed as the finest hummus or guacamole I’ve ever eaten. But when I see “market-fresh vegetables and pickles hand-selected by the chef—$14,” or some variation thereof, I am upset. That is not a “gorgeous crudité platter.” It is a relish tray, and if you’re going to serve it to me, it should be at the table when I sit down, or very quickly thereafter, and it should be complimentary. It should be, as bread service once was, and sometimes still is, a thank-you gift that also says “You’re welcome.”
It should be, as bread service once was, and sometimes still is, a thank-you gift that also says “You’re welcome.”
Times change, and the classic relish tray has largely gone the way of Jell-O salad. It seems especially rare in big cities. In fact, I think the last time I had the pleasure of eating a relish tray was at Sorrento’s Restaurant way out in Maple Park, Illinois—an old-fashioned supper club that sits not in the woods but on a rural highway across from Sycamore Speedway, famous for its Friday night demolition derbies. Their tray is ideal in its simplicity: carrots, celery, radishes, and scallions sitting in an ice bath to keep them crunchy and fresh. It can’t cost the modest restaurant more than a buck in raw materials, but its impact is far beyond that. Sorrento’s graciously adds a signature cheese spread, bread, and individually wrapped crackers—none of which are technically part of the relish tray, but all of which convey an attitude of hospitality.
The relish tray adds plenty and takes nothing away. What is a carrot stick if not an appetizer in the truest sense of the word? It won’t fill you up. It will only make you hungry for something more substantial. It will not displace a chunk of prime rib or filet mignon, but only make the main course feel more juicy and decadent.
The word “relish” originally meant something like “taste” in Middle French way back in the 1500s—before, some hundred years later, it came to mean enjoyment itself. It didn’t describe a condiment til nearly 1800, and it didn’t describe the radioactive-green stuff that decorates a Chicago-style hot dog for generations after that. (Again, that relish will not appear on your relish tray, at least not from any reputable source.) But all those modern-day definitions have something in common: they evoke simple pleasures. And there are few pleasures simpler than the modest, reliable relish tray.