[Hungry for History] Collard Greens

[Hungry for History] Collard Greens

Naw, Whole Foods did not “discover” them, but they sure tried to ruin them

by Donna Battle Pierce, January 22, 2016

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[Hungry for History] Collard Greens

Recently, Whole Foods offered up the tutorial How to Cook Collards, accompanied by a recipe and a large photograph depicting the extremely nutritious greens tossed with roasted peanuts and peanut butter. 

“If you’re not cooking with these greens you need to be,” the blog’s headline read. Almost instantly, Black Twitter was brought to a boil.

Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Boston’s Babson College, offers a lighter perspective to help ease this angst over Whole Foods’ (and other) examples of culinary entitlement.

“I describe the recent posting as a Columbus approach,” said the author of Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, where in 2008, he described West African women gathering “bush greens” consisting of spinach, collards, mustard greens and root vegetable leaves to use raw or cooked. “Whole Foods seems to be ‘discovering’ collard greens the way Columbus ‘discovered’ America.”

Opie’s newest book, Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food: Recipes, Remedies & Simple Pleasures, released a year ago, includes many references to greens from the author’s private and published works, including the detailed collard-cleaning process described as a reflection of how much the greens are loved by the Black community. “Hurston recalls when her ‘mother was going to have collard greens for dinner,’ she would take a dishpan full of them down to the spring to wash,” Opie writes.

And just how do we address all the trendy White chefs not giving Black cultural attribution to collard recipes, or the Southern Whites crediting grandparents and generations before with passing down their family’s collard green dishes?

According to Dr. Charles Forster Smith, White collard green recipes could be authentic for those families coming from poverty. In 1883, the South Carolina-born Vanderbilt professor observed, “In the South, no word is better known among the poorer Whites and Negroes than collards or greens.”

Later, William Oliver Stevens, a well-known writer who had received a Ph.D in English literature from Yale in 1903, took a stronger approach, decrying White participation with collard green cooking in his 1939 travel book about Charleston, South Carolina. 

“There is also a favorite green vegetable—a tough bitter horror called ‘collards,’ which looks like what you pick out of a wet lawn mower. The philologist explains the name as a corrupt spelling. Originally, during the eighteenth century anyway, only ‘collard’ people though it was fit to eat,” he wrote in his 1939 book, Charleston.

The following recipe adapted from Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family, by author Alice Randall and her daughter Caroline Randall-Williams, an assistant English professor at West Virginia University, reflects a new generation of collard greens cooks who (wisely) appreciate this delicious dish… with a twist.

“By the time I started cooking greens, I only distantly remembered the pots of greens Nana and Grandma cooked that included smoked turkey legs and even ham hocks. I was far more familiar with Caribbean-style greens—hot, spicy and stewed with other vegetables. That’s what happens here,” writes Caroline Randall-Williams in the recipe’s head notes.

A Mess of Greens

2 large bunches collards, kale, turnip greens or mustard greens

1 yellow onion, diced

3 garlic cloves mined

3 jalapenos, dice

¼ cup hot sauce

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

I like to wash my greens seven times, but I realize that isn’t essential. It is, however, essential that you wash them in enough changes of water to get them completely clean. After you wash them, tear them up and throw them in a large pot. Add 1½ quarts of water, the onion, garlic, jalapeños, his sauce and vinegar, cover the pot, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat and allow the greens to stew on low heat until very soft, two hours. Serve the greens hot with plenty of the pot liquor.

Donna Battle Pierce is a food editor and test kitchen director. Her most recent research included trips to explore public and private archives in South Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska and Massachusetts for a book she’s writing about Black cooks, restaurants and recipes. She currently writes, teaches cooking classes and conducts seminars about saving family recipes. Follow her on Twitter @BlackAmerCooks.

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