I love munching on olives while waiting for the big holiday dinner to finish. When I was a kid, there were always at least two kinds of olives out, usually away from the kitchen, often laid out with candy and nuts and some little napkins and tiny plates. It was part of “this food is to distract you and keep you out of the kitchen until the main event” table.
Depending on which branches of the extended family were present, the setting was referred to as either “the olives and pickles” or “the relish tray.” It was called a relish “tray” regardless of whether there was an actual tray. A real relish tray is a bit of glassware meant for a buffet table in a formal dining setting, which has separated compartments.
The relish tray’s heyday was before the 20th Century, when the only foods available during the winter months were those which had been canned, pickled, or otherwise preserved during the growing seasons. Home canned foods often are very bland, so pickled foods added bursts of vinegary or briny or sweet delight.
I didn’t know that as a kid. There just were always at least two kinds of olive, and usually sweet pickled beets and at least two kinds of pickles. And if this was the right branch of the family, most of the pickles were home-pickled produce. Grandma B. liked an even mix of savory and sweet choices. Grandma P. always had a lot of very spicy pickled vegetables. If Great-grandma S.J.’s pickled squash was in the mix, it was a very special relish tray, for instance. One year, Great-aunt Pearl (though now that I think about it, she was my Grandma’s aunt, so she was technically my great-great-aunt) had sent a jar or two of homemade pickled watermelon rind, and that may have been the best relish tray, ever.
It just doesn’t feel like a real holiday dinner, to me, if there isn’t a relish tray. If given half a chance, I’ll set out a spread of dozens of different kinds of olives alone. Even if it’s going to be a small group. Each vinegary, briny, and sweet morsel is a little bit of my childhood, coming back for a visit.