Collard Greens

“Collard greens grow throughout the South and, probably as much as any other food, serve as a culinary Mason-Dixon line. Some claim greens kept Sherman’s scorched-earth policy from totally starving the South into submission; many today can testify to surviving Depression winters with greens, fatback, and cornbread. Southern childhood memories often focus on collard greens: either the pleasant, loving connection of grandma’s iron pot and steaming potlikker, or the traumatizing effects engendered by the first whiff of the unmistakable odor for which greens are famous. Writing in the Charlotte Observer in 1907, Joseph P. Caldwell explained, “The North Carolinian who is not familiar with pot likker has suffered in his early education and needs to go back and begin it over again.” Particularly among rural and poor southerners, collard greens have endured as a dietary staple.

Sometimes defined as headless cabbages, collards are best when prepared just after the first frost, though they are eaten year-round. They should always be harvested before the dew dries. When being prepared, they are “cropped,” then “looked,” then cooked; that is, cut at the base of a stalk, searched for worms, and then cooked “till tender” on a low boil, usually with fatback, or neck or backbone, added. The resultant “mess o’ greens,” topped with a generous helping of vinegar, can easily make a meal in itself. If they are summer greens (and much tougher), the tenderizing could take two hours or more of cooking; after first frost, it may take less than an hour. A whole pecan in the pot should eliminate the pungent and earthy smell. Potlikker, the juice left in the pot after the greens are gone, is a southern version of nectar from the gods and is valued both as a delicacy—particularly when sopped with cornbread—and for its alleged aphrodisiacal powers. Greens combine well with black-eyed peas and hog jowl in the South’s traditional New Year’s Day meal. To ensure good fortune, one should either eat lots of greens or tack them to the ceiling. In fact, a collard leaf left hanging over one’s door can ward off evil spirits all year long.

Though collard greens are grown year-round throughout the South and Southwest (Indians call them quelites), they are most prevalent in the Deep South and the eastern plains of North and South Carolina. The exporting of collards to displaced southerners in the Northeast has become a big business in the three leading collards-producing states. From the last week of October through May, eight firms from Georgia and the Carolinas ship a thousand tons of whole, fresh collards a week to the major northeastern metropolitan areas. The greens are cut and banded, then packed in bundles on ice, about 25 pounds per box or 20 tons a truckload.”

~ Alex Albright, East Carolina University. Excerpt From “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture”, John T. Edge (Editor)

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