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Greens by Leni Sorensen

Roots: Greens

By Leni Sorensen

Greens belong to all of us.  We who eat our collard, mustard, and turnip greens because we love them. We who might only get to eat them when we go home to visit the folks, or at the annual Homecoming, or when a neighbor brings us a bunch, or during Kwanzaa. However we eat them, we are those folks who do so in total wallowing enjoyment with little thought of diet or nutrition. We’re the folks who laugh about them stinking up our house as we go back for another helping. 

We praise greens in their greasy greenness, and we debate the best ways to prepare them, contrasting one style against another. We don’t discuss them as detailed recipes. Instead, we talk of technique and preferences: how to deal with the stalks, or whether to cook the meat first or not, or if we use  hot pepper flakes as a primary ingredient, or splash red pepper sauce on the finished dish. Folks can get especially het up over whether to use vinegar or not. Lowery’s Seasoning Salt? Rich with pork hock? Or meatless? 

A great greasy mouthfeel, that is the key to “the people’s” collards. Without that sensation you might as well eat, well, I’m not sure what, because all greens are made totally scrumptious by butter or meat or a cream sauce. I think those who cook without fats find their greens lacking that juicy, drippy satisfying full-flavor dish. Far better than greens in a restaurant are greens made at home. That way you get to have seconds and thirds and you get to ladle up the pot likker to sop your cornbread or biscuits. 

In my neck of the woods, the Central Virginia Piedmont, collards are the default green. Everybody knows what I am talking about when they hear just that one word. Black or white, young or old, out here in my rural neighborhood, folks who like greens eat them without much comment. No need to talk about something that’s just daily life. 

Recently, greens have been hijacked, turned into a trend by food culture crunchy granola types. Kale as miracle food? I gotta say I’m thrilled to finally see that phenomenon disappear in the culinary rear view. To my ear, just hearing ‘kale chips’ sounds like a punchline to a bad joke. Who the hell actually eats kale chips? Who actually eats them as a regular part of their diet? To me good food is not a “diet.” Good food is a rich and fabulous part of life. Greens are good food and being good for you is a side bonus. They are not medicine.  

Pots of beautifully cooked collards have long been woven into the cultural fabric of the South, as well as the region’s justice movements. In the 20th century, one famous participant of the Civil Rights Movement described them as integral to the “sacramental meal” activists shared at Paschal’s, a black owned restaurant in Atlanta in the early 1960s. Alongside black restaurateurs, Southern black farmer activists bought land and grew crops, including collards. Fanny Lou Hamer’s Pig Bank, and later her Freedom Farm in Sunflower County, Mississippi, the North Bolivar Farm Cooperative in Bolivar County, and groups such as The Federation of Southern Cooperatives joined forces from Arkansas to the Mississippi Delta to ensure poor local families (black and white, tenants and sharecroppers) had adequate nutrition and even the ability to participate in the agricultural market place. Greens played a pivotal role. 

My childhood was spent in Los Angeles and San Diego in the 1940s and 50s, when both cities felt more like small towns and were full of immigrants from the South. My stepdad arrived in Los Angeles at age 23 from Algiers, Louisiana. Along with the ambition of a young black man determined to succeed in a new place, he brought his experience as a cook. His mother had died when Daddy Robert was in the third grade and he left school to care for his four younger siblings while his father worked away from home driving the mule-drawn mail wagon between parishes for the local post office. Robert was a man who rarely looked back. How he learned to cook and who he learned from were never part of the story, but cook he could and did — simple straightforward, stick to your ribs Southern food. Red beans and rice and cornbread were staples at our house. Fricasseed meat and gravy when times were good, and greens most all the time, especially in so lush a place as California. He was the family cook in a way my mother did not want to be. 

Daddy Robert could be found almost any Friday cruising the various church plate dinners offered curbside from card tables. Central Avenue and Watts were the black districts in Los Angeles, just as Logan Heights was in San Diego. Thousands of black immigrants from the South brought their church food traditions into these emerging cities. From the African Methodist Episcopal Church to Holy Rollers to tiny storefront congregations with long complex names but only fifteen members, each competed  for Friday evening church-plate dinner revenue. Daddy would pile me in the car and off we would go. The ladies of each congregation prepared  their specialties. In my memory, the big vats of hot oil for the fish fry and the smoky wood burning grills for pork barbecue were handled by men. 

I remember the white paper plate with a white napkin underneath. The slice of white bread on top piled with ribs or fried chicken or fish, a generous square of cornbread, green beans or sliced tomatoes, baked beans or coleslaw. On every menu there were always greens. One often had a choice on those greens: turnip and mustard cooked together, or collards. For an additional cost you could get a separate small plate with a slice of cake or sweet potato pie for dessert. Daddy usually bought us one slice of cake to share as he was very particular, indeed persnickety and opinionated, about sweet potato pie. But that’s another tale for another time. 

When I was nine, we moved from the city to a pretty rural seaside area of San Diego County.  The move encouraged me to cook.

I started with Daddy Roberts’ basic menu of daily items. Greens were an important part of my learning. Daddy had the rule of three as I came to call it; dry beans must be picked over three times and any greens washed in three waters. The stem was cut out of each leaf as it was stacked one upon the next. To him stems in the greens were sign of a careless cook. Maybe artless is a better description, someone who just didn’t care that much. In one of his few remarks about the Louisiana of his childhood, he spoke disparagingly of those white people he called “po buckra” who were too lazy to grow greens or who thought greens were only food for blacks. He had respect for anyone (black or white) who ate greens in the same way he admired anyone who made good barbecue. As if in retrospective support of Daddy Robert’s disparaging opinion, a 1974 article about the “Cajun” minority in Washington County, Alabama, quotes a local as saying, “Have you noticed that none of the [Cajun people’s] houses have gardens around them? . . . A colored person will have a little garden with a few collards, if nothing else.”

When the stack of destemmed collard leaves was high enough, he taught me to make a tight roll lengthwise and cut the greens into about one inch wide ribbons always starting from top to bottom. Meanwhile, a ham hock and a cut-up onion were heating up in the big pan with water to cover. The collards would be added and pushed down to fit under the lid. We’d lower the heat and let them cook till they are done. To me, done is a smell as much as a particular texture because I find each crop of greens is a bit different even when grown in the same garden. 

Collards, Brassica oleracea, were known and mentioned in the first century AD in Roman records. By this date, there were already heading, non-heading, and edible-stem varieties.
Jump forward two millennia and the universal success of Brassica can be seen in the glossy pages of almost any seed catalog. I chose my list from one quite popular nationally distributed gardening catalog used by home gardeners and farm level producers because it is detailed enough to list the Latin names. Mustard Green (Brassica juncea); four varieties of green leaved mustards, and five varieties of the red leaf. There are three varieties of Turnip (Brassica rapa), a dual purpose vegetable that has both edible roots and greens. The Asian Greens (Brassica japonica, b. chineses, b. perviridis) including the Pac and Bok Choi’s number nineteen varieties. I would love to grow every one of the seven varieties of Kale (Brassica oleracea) offered. With sixteen varieties of Cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitate), there is surely a perfect type for any gardener. Chinese Cabbage (often just called Napa Cabbage at the market) is brassica rap ver. pekinensis, and you could choose between five varieties. And I’m not including in this long list the Broccoli, Kohlrabi, Cauliflower, and Brussels Sprouts that are all members of this magnificent brassica family.  

While this particular catalog only offers three varieties of collard, across the South there are growers, collectors and swappers of heirloom landrace collards from Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina keeping old and distinct types alive and growing. Some have flat leaves, and some have curly leaves. Some have red veins and stems, while some have yellowish leaves. The annual collard festival in Ayden, North Carolina brings together enthusiasts to eat and share traditional lore of this most popular and historic green. 

Looking back to the fourteenth century, scholars of collards (a phrase that falls trippingly off one’s lips) have come to the conclusion that the British Colewort was the original antecedent of the common collard grown in the United States. One record from 1354 lists the purchase of twenty pounds of Colewort seed, enough to plant two acres, indicating the Colewort’s popularity. It was a plant that could endure cold and drought and was tolerant of poor soils. A scholar of medieval gardens says the closest plant to the early brassica oleracea still in existence is the Southern Collard despite undergoing many changes as it became more and more domesticated through the centuries. British colonists brought the seed, imported the seed, and saved the seed.  In  doing so, they initiated the diffusion of the many types of collards being grown today. 

Because African American foodways have been so closely connected to collards, the question has long been debated about a potential African origin for the collard. Recent botanical research in African societies where collards are being eaten today indicates that the rich inheritance of Africans and greens comes more from the several hundreds of traditional greens usually of the amaranth family that have been part of the African diet for millennia. However, in the seventeenth century, when the enslaved laborers in British North America and the Caribbean encountered the colewort/collard family, they were well prepared to add them to an already fulsome culinary repertory. 

For many years I have grown collards, kale, and Asian chois, Swiss chard, and Napa Cabbage in my gardens. Depending on the weather and the rapacity of the bugs, I pick greens everyday once the plants are a respectable size. As taught to me, I harvest the leaves from the bottom because it encourages the plant to keep growing. Collard varieties that have done best for me are Georgia and Vates but there are those lovely heirloom and various hybrid varieties out there. I know what does best for me in my plot. You’ll notice spinach is not on the list. I have never been successful with spinach; it either won’t germinate, or it germinates, leafs out, and immediately goes to seed. I’ll probably continue to waste a packet of spinach seed each year in stubborn insistence on one day getting it right. 

I’ve only grown a respectable stalk of Brussels Sprouts once in my long gardening career. That’s one vegetable that takes some serious attention, at least here in the muggy, buggy upper South. I do grow Swiss Chard because it is my favorite ‘sweet’ green. But in general I believe that when it comes to greens, the bitterer the better. As for mustard and turnip greens, I usually grow separate larger broad sewn patches of them for the hens, and any pig I might be raising. That way I can steal a meal or two through the season or add a few leaves at a time to my pot of collards to add some punch. 

Come the cooler nights of early fall these varied greens take off, growing like crazy as if the summer was just practice. The collard leaves grow as big as a two hands together and the plants begin to look like trees. I usually have to stake them in case of very wet and windy weather. I don’t usually get a first frost until late October but when it hits I build a frame over the bed to cover with row cloth. Covered like this, I harvest greens until the deepest cold of January. 

In the long run, some folks will passionately claim greens for one cultural constituency or another, or argue precise dates of first origins, but that is not my impulse. When I grow my rows of greens I think of myself as part of a tradition that includes those lovingly tilled gardens decorating the landscapes of Europe and Africa and the Americas across the centuries. When I’m cooking greens I always think of Daddy. I am careful to abide by his injunction to cut out those tough ole’ stems. When I am served greens cooked by others I am ever grateful there are so many people who love greens as I do.  

( From Crop Stories No.5)

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