THE STORY BEHIND THE FOODS WE SAVOR MOST
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Illustrations by Jing Li
VOL. II: CHAPTER ONE
When I was a kid, I greedily gobbled up almost everything that came out of my grandmother Munnie’s kitchen.
Collards were the notable exception.
Whenever I sniffed a whiff of the unpleasant odor they’d emit when they hit simmer in her tall stockpot, I made myself scarce. Everyone else in the house would be lined up, fingers impatiently tapping their plates as they waited to get their serving of greens with an anticipation that perplexed me. To me, cooked collards looked (and smelled) like the slimy stuff floating around the edges of my granddad's catfish ponds just outside. No thanks.
In adulthood, my flavor affections have shifted mightily. I love collard greens and deeply regret never tasting Munnie’s. I can’t say for sure, but trusting she did them right (the same way she did everything), I believe hers would have escalated the veggie’s earthiness with pork fat’s richness and salty nip and would have given it a softness from slow-cooking that’s not mushy but instead almost meaty.
Collards prepared this way are a Southern staple, but as do many of the items with a hallowed place in the South’s foodways, collard greens have a complex history—one linked to slavery. Today, they’re emblematic of the South’s shared cuisine, holding a special place in the kitchens and hearts of multiple people, crossing the boundaries of generation, background, and race. The problem is, for a long time, the foundational contributions African-Americans made to much of what we deem “Southern food” have been overlooked or even ignored. Recently, there’s been a push among culinary historians and many in the food world to recognize and remember collard greens’ (and other dishes’) true roots.
To boil it down a bit, we asked Edward H. Davis, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Emory & Henry College in Virginia, who co-wrote a 2015 book on the topic (appropriately titled Collards), to expound on the dark green’s past and present in our region.
Where did collards originate?
The wild plant was and is still found along the northern shores of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic shores of Spain, France, and England. Plant historians believe the plant was domesticated 3,000 years ago. Domestication of that wild plant produced many related food plants, all members of one species (Brassica oleracea): collards, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts.
When and why did they become such a Southern food staple?
English and Spanish settlers brought the seeds to the New World in the 1500s and 1600s, but the collard was a minor plant in colonists' gardens. Enslaved Africans, however, made the collard central to the South's diet (for white and black folks). The evidence we gathered in Europe, West Africa, and the South indicates that African people, more than Europeans, sought dark leafy greens for their diet. Southern U.S. forests lacked such plants, so slaves adopted collards from their masters' gardens. Today, collards remain central to white and black foodways in those areas longest settled by small farm families and slaves (eastern North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia).
Is there a Southern state (or specific region of the South) that grows and/or consumes more collards than other areas?
Our 2007-08 survey of 11,000 college students around the South indicated that South Carolina is the state with the highest collard consumption, followed closely by North Carolina, Georgia, and then Florida. But these patterns are likely in some decline, as urbanization has been occurring in those states, and as home-cooked meals (especially cooked leafy greens) are less popular these days. Collards consumption in total is stable, but on a per capita basis it is in a slow decline, replaced by such things as fresh spinach. To find the real "Collard Belt," look in rural areas of eastern North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
What makes collard greens emblematic of Southern food and its foodways?Collards may be the most Southern of all foods because it is (they are?) not popular anywhere else in the world. Something similar is popular in Brazil and Portugal, but the foods are not identical.
COLLARDS WITH HAM HOCKS
Professor Davis shared one of the many collard green recipes he collected while working on his book, Collards. This recipe is from Charlie Cannon of Hobgood, North Carolina.
Estimated cooking time is one hour. Serves 5 or 6
1 lb. ham hocks
1 large onion, chopped
2 lbs. collards (rinsed, cut into small pieces, stems removed)
2 hardboiled eggs, sliced
Brown the chopped onion in a frying pan. Give this a good 10 minutes. Boil the ham hocks in a large pot for five minutes; use just enough water to cover the ham hocks. Add the browned onions and collards. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes. Add pepper to taste (some use hot pepper sauce; I don’t). Serve over cornbread with the slices of hardboiled egg as a garnish.