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Collards: A Bitter Delight

There is perhaps no food more attributed to the unique Southern palate than a mess of greens. Be it turnip, collard, mustard, or even a pot of poke, greens invoke a sense of Southern cuisine. This is why it is not unusual to find collard greens on the Southern Sunday table (preferably with cornbread and pintos). How did this high nutrient and bitter but delicious food find its way to this fame? 

But I have never tasted meat, nor cabbage, nor corn, for beans, nor fluid food on half as sweet as that first mess of greens. -James T. Cotton Noe (1912)

If you read food magazines, blogs, or even news stories featuring foods you will think collard greens arrived on the continent via Trans-Atlantic slave routes. I have read this story many times through the years. However, history tells us that while those forcibly moved to the “New World” may have perfected the cooking of collards, it was most likely early British colonists who brought the first seeds to be planted in hope of survival. It begs the question of how so many writers have gotten it wrong. I have thoughts.

Fortunately, I found Michael W. Twitty and his work on food and the African diaspora via his website Afroculinaria. Twitty is a James Beard award winning cookbook author and food historian. He tells it like it t-i-s instead of falling back on stories often repeated but wildly inaccurate. It seems it is easier to tell stories that make us feel good then share the truth but his sharp wit and story telling skills shed a light on this sometimes shadowy subject. I had already read book excerpts and academic journals written largely by white academics. There was a part of me that needed validation from African-American historians to be convinced there was no subterfuge in collard's origin.

Collard greens can be traced back to ancient Greece but like with some other foods, there is a question in its history. Some say collards or colewart originated in Greece and this is the most likely scenario. Some suggest they were from other parts of Europe inhabited by Celts and taken to Greece then dispersed. Regardless, we do know Greece was likely an originator to the greater world and from there collards were dispersed via trade, migration, and the sharing of culture.

The love of greens is fairly universal among cultures with the greens found on the American Southern dinner table being a wonderful example of the fusion of people and cultures. Collards crossed Europe and the English Channel and found their way across the Mediterranean and down the West Coast of Africa via the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa and then to central Africa. Collards are a cool weather crop and easily grew in Germany and in England. This leafy green is part of the Brassica family and close cousins to cabbage, chard, and spinach. Eventually Europeans adopted cabbage as a more regular part of their diet though British colonists began to grow collards as more of a dietary staple.

Traditional New Year's Day Dinner 2024

Despite not being native to the continent of Africa, collards were similar to greens foraged by Africans and used in many regions and many African cultures. Those with access to it in West Africa as well as slaves encountering it for the first time up and down the American coasts were able to easily adapt collards into their own diets. Later, collards became a crop grown in small patches outside of slave cabins to supplement their meager rations. Collards quickly became a staple throughout the new world and were even found in gardens of Cherokee women in areas where they lived close to settlers and those with slaves. And they were popular among poor white families, especially in the years after the Civil War when share cropping became prevalent across the South.

One part of the collard origin story we do know, potlikker is known to have originated from the slave food traditions of the South. Potlikker is the juice remaining after your greens, preferably collards, have cooked and are ready to eat. This juice is full of vitamins A, C, and K as well as iron. It is a delicious part of the meal that demands hoe cakes to be dipped into the juice then eaten!

My own story of collard greens is not as sweet as some of my other food remembrances. We had greens growing up. Not that often, though we had them. It seems it was more often turnip greens, though I prefer collards as I have gotten older. I was a great eater and did not typically mind vegetables and our Mother insisted we have them at every meal, but my love greens was more of an acquired taste. I was probably in adulthood before I really began to appreciate this wonderful food that is so quintessentially Southern and invokes such a warm feeling whenever they are simmering on the stove.

Collard greens have seen a resurgence in recent years. The popularity of Southern cuisine, increased interest in farming, growing desires to reconnect to cultures of origin in a world whose tapestries are threatened to be engulfed by the impulse of sameness - these things and more have put an emphasis on our past and an appreciation for foods that have shaped us. I mean, we can only eat so much Kale, right?

If you are ready to make collard greens and are not sure where to start, this is the recipe you have been looking for. Don't be intimidated. Do be patient.


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