Despite what many would believe the South to be, vegetables are the most important and most beloved part of our cuisine. If you think about the traditional lunch of the South, many people refer to it as the “meat and three”: that’s one meat and three vegetables. So collard greens are central to Southern identity and the Southern diet. They’re so endemic that North Carolina–born Thelonious Monk would play jazz clubs in New York wearing a collard leaf in the manner that other folks would wear a flower boutonnière, as a way of saying, “This is who I am, this is where I’m from.” For many, that collard leaf represents home.
What are some of your favorite traditional places that serve up collard greens as a regular feature of their menu?
The collards that I like in y’all’s neck of the woods are cabbage collards. Bum’s in Ayden, North Carolina, does a great job with collards. I went there recently on the same trip that took me to my last visit to Chef and the Farmer. Eating those sweet cabbage collards, and seeing them advertised on the roadside driving through North Carolina—it’s a taste and experience I can only get there, and Bum’s is one of the places that does it really well. But you can find excellent places serving collards all around the South, whether it’s Weaver D’s in Athens, Georgia, or Niki’s West in Birmingham, Alabama, or Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville, Tennessee.
Did you grow up eating collards?
Yeah, sure. I grew up in Georgia, in a little town called Clinton, about twelve miles northeast of Macon. Collards were back-of-the-stove pot food for us. If you grew up in New Orleans, that back-of-the-stove food might have been beans and rice, but for me it was a big pot of collards or turnips or mustards. It was a ladle of collards, you know, drenched in potlikker at the bottom of the bowl. My mother baked corn sticks, which are cornbread in these little cast iron molds, and you get this great surface texture, lots of crunchiness on the outside. I loved to dunk my corn sticks in potlikker, that was a big taste of my youth. When I went to grad school at the University of Mississippi to get a degree in Southern Studies, I actually wrote my thesis on potlikker. There was a debate in 1931 between Huey Long, who at that point was the US senator-elect from Louisiana, and Julian Harris, who was the son of Joel Chamber Harris of Uncle Remus fame and at that point was an editor of the Atlanta Constitution. They debated for a few months the relative merits of dunking or crumbling cornbread into potlikker.
That’s amazing. And who won, if there is such a thing?
There was no winner. It was a stunt, a way to divert attention from the ills of the day, including the Depression. And it was a way for Long to do what politicians have always done, which is to use food as a way of saying, “I’m one of you, I’m a common man.” But it was also a way to talk about race and class and gender and the feminist movement. There were all these letters to the editor about stances that Long and Harris took— hundreds of letters and movie reels, a huge outpouring. It was a very powerful mechanism for people to think through Southern identity.
In the spirit of companions like chicken & dumplings and barbecue & slaw, finish this phrase: Collards and...
Cornbread! What else would you say?
OK, that was an easy one. Now, if you were going to design the perfect meat and three and one of them had to be collards, what would be on the plate?
For me, it would be fried and smothered pork chops with rice, collards, and creamed corn.
I love creamed corn.
I do too.
What time of year speaks collards to you?
A lot of people think collards sweeten up after the first frost, so they’re typically thought of as a fall and winter dish. But it doesn’t have to be. I’ll take ’em any time I can get ’em.
In eastern North Carolina, people have historically seasoned pots of collards with sugar, salt, pork, and hot vinegar, and followed that seasoning with a low and slow simmer until it’s very tender. What’s your preferred method?
A lot of working-class restaurants cook them until they’re mush, sort of pre-masticated in the pot. But I don’t think that’s necessarily how home cooks do it. I like the astringent, bracing taste of collards, and I like the leathery consistency of the greens themselves. To me, a well-made collard is something you gotta chew a little bit. You should have to work your incisors, you know? At our house, we often use garlic and olive oil and maybe even for the hambone funk a splash of fish sauce.
People in eastern North Carolina are crazy for cabbage collard. Folks closely guard their seeds, they’ll only cook them after a frost, and they’ll ferment the leaves for kraut according to the signs of the moon. What is going on with all this collard folklore?
Those folkloric beliefs are part and parcel of what we were talking about earlier with Thelonious Monk, this idea that collards have some totemic power. There’s a belief that collards serve as a spring tonic, something that enlivens you after the doldrums of winter. People believed that a poultice made of potlikker made from collards could be applied to injuries like burns, and would aid in recovery. There was a longtime belief that collards are nutrient-rich, even before nutritionists began to analyze it and realize that they’re rich in A, B, and C. The foods that sustained people in tough times are seen as sustaining families and entire communities, the whole region. You know, in the same way that potlikker is the distilled essence of the collard, it’s also the distilled essence of the South.
Photos by Yvonne Boyd & Angie Mosier