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My mom’s relish tray is gone. Lost to time and moves and one too many cupboard clean-outs. It was mid-century, middle-class-fancy pressed glass, probably a wedding gift that she received

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

My mom’s relish tray is gone. Lost to time and moves and one too many cupboard clean-outs. It was mid-century, middle-class-fancy pressed glass, probably a wedding gift that she received

Remembering the Holiday Relish Tray

Table with relish tray, celery vase, and pickle castor.

My mom’s relish tray is gone. Lost to time and moves and one too many cupboard clean-outs. It was mid-century, middle-class-fancy pressed glass, probably a wedding gift that she received back in September 1950. I remember it vividly — or, should I say, I remember it holding a mosaic of pickles and cut veggies and, of course, black olives that I ate five at a time. (If you know, you know.)

Like so many kitchen items that were relegated to the box of misfit plates and coffee mugs in our basement, that relish tray was eventually forgotten.

But what will never be forgotten are the Christmases when I was eye-level to the card table, fascinated by the mysterious contents of the steaming Crock-Pot and the mounds of carrots and pickles and peppers just out of reach. Or the sorties made by a hungry-teen me to grab a plate full of everything and escape with my cousins to the family room. And I’ll cherish the memories from early adulthood before we all went our own ways with our own families to begin new traditions. In hindsight, the pickles may have been tangy, but the memories are bittersweet.

• • •

Thinking it’s time to create a new, 21st-century relish tray custom, I head to a place akin to Santa’s workshop, where almost every type of plate, saucer, teacup, and, yes, relish tray has been rescued and restored: Replacements, Ltd., in McLeansville. And it does not disappoint, with dishware of all shapes, sizes, and colors — from plain and sturdy to delicate and embossed with Christmas motifs.

More intriguing than the pieces themselves is the crash course in relish tray history provided by Julie Robbins, a Replacements product specialist. She explains that the divided glass trays ­— which have graced dinner tables and holiday spreads for the past 70 years — actually got their start in wealthy homes in the 19th century, when the pickles that servants made would be displayed in ornamental pickle castors. And families just had to show off one of the rarest, most sought-after foods of the time, the vegetable that might be considered the inspiration for all relish trays to come: celery.

Yes, celery.

“You would have had a vase for celery,” Robbins explains. “Because celery was super expensive and hard to come by, you’d put it in the middle of the table to flex and show it off, and then you could eat out of it.” As celery became more available and began landing on middle-class tables — often as a vehicle for cream cheese, or, in the South, pimento cheese — what we now think of as relish trays evolved to have a space to accommodate the longer stalks.

Angus Barn relish tray with pickles, sweet peppers, olives, and celery

Angus Barn’s relish is a feast in itself. On your next visit, try owner Van Eure’s favorite combination: dill pickles with a dollop of cheddar. photograph by Dhanraj Emanuel

Robbins pauses, smiles, and then launches into her own relish tray memories. “When I was a little girl,” she says, “my dad’s mother had a relish tray, and she always had pickled beets, because they were her favorite, and pickled okra and spiced peaches that she grew and made herself. Every holiday, you could count on that.”

Robbins shares that, like many families, her grandmother also had another very special tray. “If the pastor’s wife had made some pickles for her, the pastor’s wife’s pickles would feature prominently in that second tray.”

Neither of those trays, however, made their way to Robbins, which, while disappointing to her, isn’t that unusual these days. As recent generations moved into cities, she says, “fewer and fewer people have 40 jars of homemade stuff in the pantry at all times.”

• • •

One place you will find a pantry stocked with an tremendous amount of relish tray fixin’s is Angus Barn, a Raleigh dining institution whose reputation was built on serving the best steaks with an abundance of the finest relish: pickles, peppers, and olives.

“When we first opened, we had big bowls, at least six to eight inches ’round,” says Van Eure, Angus Barn’s owner and the daughter of its founder, Thad Eure Jr. “We would fill them with ice, and we would put celery stalks right in the middle. And then around the celery, we’d put hot cherry peppers, green and black olives, radishes, and pickles. It was huge!” she says proudly.

The Angus Barn in Raleigh, NC

Thanks to its premium steaks, chocolate chess pie, and, surely, its relish, Angus Barn has grown to become one of the state’s most popular restaurants. photograph by VisitNC.com

Add to that the restaurant’s house-made crackers and legendary crocks of creamy cheddar cheese, which is custom-made for Angus Barn by a cheesemaker in Wisconsin, and it’s no wonder that generation after generation return here for celebrations.

Sitting at an upstairs table overlooking the warm, wood-paneled lobby, Eure reminisces about the early years of the restaurant that her dad and a partner opened in 1960.

“My father wanted to be sure that the minute you sat down, you had something in front of you: cheese, crackers, and relish,” Eure says. “Our tradition is to have fine dining with large portions. We love it when guests have enough food to have a meal the next day, and the good memories carry on.”

Over the years, the offerings have been refined and improved upon — Greek olives replaced American, gourmet pickles instead of brands available in groceries. And they dropped radishes, which, Eure says, “were something that no one ever ate because it’s basically like eating a raw onion.”

The amount of relish served each week at Angus Barn is astronomical.

One of the biggest changes, however, came as a result of Covid, which dealt a death blow to the beloved upstairs and downstairs cheese and relish stations. Despite the loss, the amount of pickles, peppers, and other relish items served each week at Angus Barn is astronomical: 20 five-gallon buckets of pickles, 60 one-gallon jars of hot cherry peppers, more than 250 pounds of olives, and up to 10 cases of celery. During Christmas, double that.

The Angus Barn spread is a far cry from the modest trays that my mom put together, even for our fanciest Christmases. And, as it turns out, the Replacements platters aren’t exactly like my mom’s. Still, there are undeniable similarities among them all: glassware and memories, pickles and family, olives and tradition.

Angus Barn
9401 Glenwood Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27617
(919) 781-2444

Replacements, LTD.
1089 Knox Road
McLeansville, NC 27301
(800) 737-5223

This story was published on Nov 27, 2023

Todd Dulaney

Todd Dulaney is the executive editor at Our State.