A nice mess of collards
By Tom Poland
Last week an email from my friend, Pat Branning, known for her gorgeous Shrimp, Collards, & Grits cookbooks, sent me on a quest. Pat and I are graduates of the University of Georgia and we share common interests such as writing, photography, Southern culture, and the subject of her email: “Collard Greens and Potlikker.” Getting her email was great because I had been aiming to write about collards but just hadn’t gotten round to it as we say down here.
Her column begins, “ ‘A mess of greens’ is the way to go this time of the year. I’m not really sure why grandma always referred to them as a “mess” but that’s what most folks down South call ’em.”
She’s right. We love a mess of greens, but that wasn’t always the case for me. I remember a time when I didn’t like collards, boyhood. Mom would cook up a mess and sit it before me. I’d drag out the meal, just sitting there not wanting to eat those dark wet, shiny green “things.” When Mom went into the kitchen and wasn’t looking, I’d open the dining room window, unhook the screen, and toss the greens out to the dogs. I’m sure the dogs were grateful. And mom? Well, she never caught me but if she had, I’d been in a mess of another kind.
Today I love collards. I sprinkle some hot sauce or vinegar on them and grab some cornbread, and it’s feast time. I like to crumble cornbread into the juice, my DIY quick and easy way to create potlikker. When I dine on collards and potlikker, I’m enjoying a food that goes way back to the times of slavery. Today it’s a vital part of Southern cuisine as another University of Georgia graduate, John T. Edge, has famously written about. John authored The Potlikker Papers, A Food History of the Modern South. It’s a must-read book, and we can thank collards and cornbread for its great title. I hope to meet this fellow alum one day. When I do we’ll sit down to a fine mess of greens.
I like collards on three levels. One, as a great food. Two, as a great topic for a Georgia boy like me to cover, and three, they are beautiful to photograph. No, let me add a fourth level. I like to ride the back roads looking for a fine patch of collards and this past Sunday my quest to find them led me to Willington, South Carolina. On a cold day I met Thomas Ware at his home with its handsome barn. Thomas and I had a great talk about the South, hawks, arrowheads, tornadoes, lightning, big trees, and you guessed it, collards.
Out behind his barn, collards welcomed the soft blue light filtering through clouds, and I enjoyed just looking at the greens, mustard greens too. By the way it just seems natural that collards should grow next to a barn. They go together like shrimp and grits. Thomas lets some collards grow for year. As they age, they turn colors, red, purple, and gold. It’s a sight to behold.
Collards. I suspect you love ’em too, lest you be from elsewhere. Now I’m not going to get all pointy headed and talk about collards as being loose-leafed cultivars of Brassica oleracea, the same species as cabbage and broccoli. No, I just want you to envision collards on their way to the kitchen where they’ll be lovingly washed and prepared for the pot. Imagine, too, some hot cornbread to go with them. Sit down to a mess of greens on a cold winter day by the fire. That old saying, “Southern by the grace of God” ought to pop into your head as you sop up some potlikker, a likker we can make at home without worrying about the High Sheriff calling. Heck, if he does, he’ll sit down with you and ask you to pass the vinegar.
And the cornbread.