Exceptionally Keen on the Collard Green

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Oh, oh, collard greens
Three degrees low, make it hot for me, drop that”

                                    --ScHoolboy Q

            WE’RE JUST GOING TO GO AHEAD AND IGNORE what that song’s really about, because *I* am talking about real, actual, collard greens. Cooked for hours with some salt pork or a hamhock, served with cornbread for dipping, Southerners have been eating a mess o’ greens at dinner for generations.

            We actually have the ancient Greeks to thank (or blame, I suppose) for the dish; there is evidence they were cultivating collard greens 2,000 years ago, though the “tree cabbage” has been around since prehistoric times. And while most Americans associate collard greens with the South, it actually evolved in the Eastern Mediterranean. From there, you need to head for European tastes—many Scottish and German immigrants who first arrived in America and settled in the South enjoyed turnip, kale, cabbage, and other brassicas as a part of their regular dining, and began adapting their cultures and tastes to what they could find in the New World. However, it was the advent of slave ships first arriving in Jamestown that caused the now-common greens consumption to be spearheaded by the enslaved peoples of African descent.

              Collard greens were one of the few select vegetables enslaved peoples were allowed to grow and harvest for themselves. Simmered low and slow over a fire, sometimes flavored with a scrap of meat if they were lucky enough to receive a ration, collard and other greens provide a thin, delicious gravy known as “pot likker” which is definitely African in origin. It also helps preserve vitamins and minerals that may otherwise be lost through various cooking methods.

               After the Civil War, many destitute white Southerners turned to eating whatever was available; while many crops had been destroyed, collard greens had not been considered a food source. They are, however, one of the most nutritious and hardy cool-weather crops. Loaded with Vitamins A, C, B-6, K, calcium and iron, they pack a much-needed punch to an an extremely scarce diet.  Necessity gave way to preference, and even now you will find them standard fare on a Southerner’s table and at potlucks and picnics.

               As always, the history of Southern food is heavily embedded in the history and culture of the enslaved African peoples. If you would like to learn more, I recommend Michael W. Twitty’s book The Cooking Gene. If you are less interested in the history than you are the food, his recipe for Kosher Soul Greens is delicious! If you are looking for something a bit more traditional, this wonderful recipe from Food & Wine is an absolute hit!


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