It’s January in the mid-South, that time of year when it actually gets cold here—right before it gets warm again. For the joyful eaters among us, it’s also the time of year when our region’s normal array of fresh, seasonal vegetables goes dark. The tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash, sweet corn, green beans, okra, eggplant, ad infinitum that color our cuisine are hibernating, and we’re flirting with a breakdown at the thought of one more meal of meat and potatoes.
In God’s good design, however, there is a bright green lining to this culinary cloud: leafy vegetables. You know, Brassica oleracea and all his rowdy friends. They’re rich in calcium, vitamin K, iron, and more, and reaching peak form right as midwinter rolls in. Southerners subconsciously know that this nutrient-packed foliage is keeping us alive, serving up a ritual meal of greens on New Year’s Day, and assigning a superstitious value to it. As the story goes, one’s prospects of prosperity in the coming year directly correlate to the volume of greens ingested on January 1. Because they look like money. Makes perfect sense, right?
If the idea of greens isn’t your concept of delicacy (or even sustenance), I have some sympathy. My self of New Years’ Past was more than willing to forgo all that income to avoid eating something so slimy and bitter. There wasn’t enough cornbread in the world to choke it down.
Times have changed, though. Greens are enjoying a renaissance. Kale (which, in my childhood, was only used to decorate the buffet at Shoney’s) is practically the shibboleth of the hipster lifestyle. All sorts of preparations are cropping up on menus. Celebrated chefs from the South, like Vivian Howard, have elevated the profile even of collards, the lowliest of the family.
Gone are the days when “greens” meant a big pot of pungency percolating on the range. Now they appear in recipes braised, creamed, folded into gratins, shaved into salads and slaws, even slowly baked into chips. Everyone is tinkering with cooking methods, experimenting with seasonings, and bringing every conceivable cultivar to the table in all its glory.
Of course, collards must still be done the old way. Even if you want to do something creative with them, you first have to give them the two-hour spa treatment on the stove. Before you even begin, the whole sink must be cordoned off for a ritual washing that would make pharisees proud. That bunch of verdure, so princely in its stubbornness, then demands that you manufacture the liquid you cook it in—two quarts of water, a split ham hock or other piece of seasoning meat, salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Then the stems must be removed and put in the pot first, lest they be found tough and stringy at serving time. Hardcore traditionalists even suggest macerating the finished product in the pot with a purpose-built tool.
Unlike with most other vegetables, this labor of love results in the best possible outcome. Boiled brussels sprouts, turnip greens, mustard greens, kale, etc., are reduced to flavorless slop, but collards are nearly inedible in any other preparation. Their bitterness becomes a defining note in a resolving chord of salty, spicy, broth as rich as any soup. Once all the greens are gone, that potlikker is a beverage without parallel. I personally ladle it off into a glass for more mannerly slurping.
I’ll fight anyone (as politely as possible—how about a cook-off?) who still refuses to try a helping of greens based solely on childhood overcooking trauma. Still not convinced? Let’s go a step further and say that greens are at the epicenter of the future of healthy lives on a healthy planet.
When you eat greens, meat is only a seasoning or condiment, not the main attraction. A little goes a long way, stretching the useful life of a slaughtered pig well beyond the festal tenderloins and chops, and even the slow-smoked shoulder of barbecue-stand fame. Almost everyone agrees that eating less meat would be better for us all. The reason greens tend to be associated with low-income cuisine is that they made it possible to feed a whole family with a tiny piece of preserved meat, usually the scraps from what a butcher might’ve sold to furnish a wealthier family’s fine dining. The only reason we all expect meat at every meal today is the artificial cheapness of modern meat thanks to industrial farming and government subsidy of feed grain. Greens can be your gateway to a less-but-better meat regimen.
Buying greens is a great first step to supporting local agriculture. They’re often among the least expensive options at your local produce stand or farmer’s market. They’re a win for local farmers, too, growing fast, requiring minimal maintenance, and coming to market in a season when income streams from more popular produce options dry up. If you want to eat healthier while breaking down the monoculture monopoly of American farming, diversify your palate with some of these unsung veggies.
Perhaps best of all, though, cooking greens requires patience and intentionality. Collards should be the poster-ingredient of the slow food movement. You can’t have them if you aren’t willing to work for them. It takes advance planning. But what thoughts and meditations could you have when you put down your screen, take up your knife, and attend to a mess of collards?
Slowing down to cook helps us slow down to savor, slow down to share. Greens remind us how fragile life is, how much we depend on unseen processes to keep these bodies going. Someone somewhere is always taking this kind of time to grow and prepare every meal we eat, whether at home, in a restaurant, or at a cannery. When we partake of this good work ourselves, we can only rejoice at the goodness and provision of the Lord of the Harvest and marvel at the abundance of His garden.
Photo: Still Life with Collards and Sink, Chattanooga, Tenn., January 2018. Collards courtesy of the only vendor open on a frigid New Year’s Day at the NC State Farmers Market in Raleigh.