Last Thursday, like millions of my fellow Americans, I sat down and gorged myself on Thanksgiving dinner. And while we had the traditional turkey, our menu, because we live in the South, likely varied from that of our Northern cousins. The biggest difference being the “mess” of collard greens we ate.
Collard greens are about as Southern as it gets, though not without some controversy. They are either loved or loathed, even amongst Southerners. Alex Albright of East Carolina University stated that “Southern childhood memories often focus on collard greens; either the pleasant, loving connection of grandma’s iron pot and steaming potlikker, or the traumatizing effects engendered by the first whiff of the unmistakable odor for which greens are famous.”
I must admit that I didn’t really like collards much when I was a kid because of the smell and because they tasted too much like spinach (which I now love). Speaking of the smell, I've read that a whole pecan placed in the pot of cooking collards eliminates their pungent odor.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered I liked them. To give you an idea how prevalent collards are in the South, they were served in my third grade school cafeteria in Suffolk, Virginia, and even at the hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where my mother had cancer surgery. (And the collards at that hospital were really good! Only in the South!)
And don’t forget about the potlikker! Potlikker is the liquid leftover when the collards are done. For many in the South, it is the nectar of the gods and is best sopped up with corn bread. Joseph P. Caldwell, writing in the Charlotte Observer in 1907, stated that “The North Carolinian who is not familiar with potlikker has suffered in his early education and needs to go back and begin it over again.” And Richard Wright once wrote: “I lived on what I did not eat. Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air and the pot liquor from greens kept me going.”
And of course, no self-respecting Southerner would enter the new year without collard greens, which are representative of prosperity. They are best enjoyed with black-eyed peas.
Here’s how I make collards. Get a big ‘o mess of them (i.e., enough to feed a bunch of friends and family), and cut off the stems and cut the leaves into long strips. Place the collards in a big pot of water and bring to a boil. Once the water has boiled, pour off the water and refill the pot with fresh water. (This will take away some of the bitterness.) For greens that are particularly tough (winter greens), you may want to do this twice. For the second boiling, put some salt and pepper in the water, along with a big ham hock or salted pork if you can’t get a ham hock at your butcher. And if don't have a ham hock or salted pork, then go with bacon. In any event, get some dang animal fat in there! Some folks will put vinegar in the water while the greens cook, or you can add some when served. (I like Trappey’s Pepper Vinegar.) You need to let the greens cook at a low simmer for a least two or three hours. Eat and enjoy with friends and family.