Recipes and Food Stories from the African Diaspora
Kujichagulia: Self-Determination, Speaking for yourself and making choices that benefit the community
At the farmers market, it’s not unusual for a customer to pick up a vegetable and ask, “What do you do with this?” For the times that I’ve been in earshot, the item in question is a leafy green like kale or a root vegetable like celeriac. Most times, it’s another customer, or me, who will chime in and run off a laundry list of ways to cook that one thing, both inspiring and overwhelming the newbie.
My favorite question to answer, and also the one I’m most bothered by, is what to do with collard greens. Living in NYC, I expect most Northern U.S. or foreign-born residents to be clueless when it comes to this broad-leafed, Vitamin K-rich Brassica, but I am always dismayed when I hear a U.S. American of African descent express unfamiliarity or a negative association with its traditional Southern U.S.-style of preparation, especially those of Southern heritage.
On several occasions, I’ve overheard someone tell another customer how “unnecessary” and “unhealthy” it is to cook collard greens down in a pot of water. I’ve heard others say they were taught to prepare it that way, not fully understanding why, and always throwing out the liquid. That last part stings, because it signals we may be losing our culinary history. It tells me that mothers and grandmothers are no longer in the kitchen with their daughters and granddaughters, passing down the “hows” and “whys” of our traditional foodways.
Yes, you can eat collard greens raw. No, you don’t have to cook collard greens for several hours; sautéing them in butter or oil is fine. But there’s a reason why they’re traditionally prepared that way, and I encourage you to experiment with several cooking techniques to discover your favorite way to prepare and eat them.
Contemporary interpretations of soul food, a label only recently applied to black Southern foods and traditions (the term soul food first appeared during the black power movement of the 1960s) often present a menu of highly processed and deep-fried animal-based foods, but traditional Southern U.S. diets were largely plant-based, whole food dishes made from scratch, with meat and fish served up on the weekend. Historically, meat came from animals raised onsite or from neighbors.
Collard greens, a staple of Southern U.S. cuisine, but originating in the eastern Mediterranean, are also found in the side dishes of Brazilian, Portuguese, Pakistani, and Indian cuisines. In Southern U.S. tradition, it is simmered for several hours in a large pot of water with some kind of bone-in meat, usually pork, either smoked or salted, such as ham hocks, knuckles, neckbones, and fatback, in addition to a proprietary seasoning blend of salt, pepper, and other herbs or spices. The result is tender greens in a nutrient dense broth commonly referred to as potlikker (pot liquor).
Potlikker has many uses, including being sopped up with homemade cornbread, bottled up for drinking later (a popular meal replacement for sharecroppers), managing colic in babies or relieving symptoms of the common cold.
In the interest of time, whenever I prepare collard greens during a cooking demo, I marinate or sauté them. As I talk about the benefits of collard greens, I make sure that one of the takeaways from my demo is an understanding of the tradition of preparing collard greens, including the long-standing tradition of preparing collard greens, alongside black-eyed peas during New Year’s Eve to manifest wealth and prosperity in the coming year. Beyond the plate, food is intrinsically linked to the culture and identity of a people. When we lose our traditional foodways, we inevitably lose a part of ourselves.
Recipes to Try:
Southern-Style Collard Greens by MyLifeRunsOnFood.com
Melissa Danielle works to empower people and communities around self-health, traditional foodways, and food sovereignty as a health coach and community food systems consultant. Based in Brooklyn, NY, Melissa facilitates workshops throughout NYC and the country. She resides online at MelissaDanielle.com, on Facebook at Honeybee Holistic and on Twitter at HoneybHolistic.