Potlikker: From Slave Plantations to Today

weinzweig apr16 potliker desk.jpg

Photo by Ryan Stiner

If I'm going to get into vegetable eating this time of year, a mess of greens is good way to go. I'm not really sure why they always say "a mess," but that's what most people down South call 'em. In fact, Angie Mosier, who's a food writer and the incoming chair of the Southern Foodways Alliance--and one of my good guides through the once totally foreign world of Southern food--told me that you always refer to greens as '"a mess of greens." Given that she's never steered me wrong (other than maybe about late-night whiskey drinking) we'll just go with what she says.

The biggest reason I'm getting focused on greens is because of potlikker. For those--like me--who didn't grow up with it and don't know it, potlikker is the "broth" in the pot from the cooking of the greens.

One afternoon, a few weeks back, I was at the Roadhouse when Ted, who quietly and very effectively works the grill, brought out the next pan to prepare for dinner. He took the old, nearly empty pan of greens out of the steam table and started to drain off the potlikker.

I just happened to look over and saw that, having carefully and appropriately taken out the remaining bits of greens to serve, he was about to dump the potlikker. Without really thinking about it I blurted out, probably way too loudly, something along the lines of, "Wait! No! That's the best part!"

And because Ted is such a diligent, effective, and skilled long-time member of the kitchen crew, the point is made more effectively--up north, hardly anybody knows about potlikker. But hey, there was a time that people here didn't know about pimento cheese, Piquillo peppers, or hamentaschen. So why not potlikker?

Ted was doing what every northern-born, potlikker-deprived line cook and regular person would do: Take out the greens and dump the liquid. Fortunately, in this case, I caught Ted before he threw the potlikker away. Instead I sent it out as samples to a bunch of good customers, all of whom (not surprisingly) loved it (because it's really good!).

Don't dismiss the greens as just some passing vegetable sidebar--the story behind that small mess of greens is a very seriously deep culinary, cultural, and historical story.

While most everyone in the South generally seems to like greens, there's no question that they play a particularly big role in African-American cooking in the region, and anywhere in the country, in fact, southern blacks moved to in large numbers.

Having learned a bit (I have a lot more to still learn) about the historical role of greens in the southern kitchen, I realized that all Ted and I were doing was unknowingly recreating what used to go on in the plantation kitchens: white masters wanted the cooked greens, but they ignored the potlikker. Slave cooks a) were understandably always working to provide food for their families and b) understood the high nutrient value of potlikker. So they happily drained it off the greens and used the broth to feed their own families.

Today it's worth having a bit of the potlikker just because it tastes so good. But I think it's also worth raising a shot glass of it in a respectful toast to the slave cooks who did the unglamorous work. They developed the roots of African-American eating the rest of us get to enjoy today.

Like barbecue, pimento cheese, fried chicken, and all those other famous foods of the south, I've learned, and continue to learn, how much emotional attachment, varied approaches, and downright difficult arguments one can get into on the subject of greens.

Of course, being from the north and being Jewish, this is all way out of my background and not something I'd ever have known about without starting to study. I'm continually amazed (in a good way) how what's seemingly nothing more than a side dish on a menu to the casual observer turns out to be another person's passion and pursuit.

John T. Edge (now head of the Southern Foodways Alliance and one of the best food writers around), for example, did his entire grad school thesis on the subject of "Potlikker and Corpone." I'd never heard of the great "Potlikker and Cornpone Debate" of 1931. Google it up [Curator's note: I love this expression! Plan to use it often] and you can learn more. Although formal, old-school, non-food-oriented historians seem to downplay the importance of the debate, John T. did it right, going far beyond the surface level and looking deeper into the cultural issues at play.

The Potlikker and Cornpone Debate pitted Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, against Huey Long, U.S. senator-elect from Louisiana. The traditionalist Harris argued that Southerners crumble cornpone into potlikker. The insurgent Long countered that he preferred to dunk. What began as lighthearted aside to the hard news of the day quickly became one of the primary news stories of February and March of 1931."

What's more...

The Potlikker and Cornpone Debate of 1931 began when Julian Harris, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution, verbally assailed Huey Long, governor of Louisiana and United States senator-elect, over the question of whether cornbread should be dunked or crumbled into potlikker. The debate quickly escalated, and, for approximately twenty-three days, between February 13 and March 8 of 1931, engaged most of the South and much of the nation. Extensive newspaper accounts and correspondence from the time illuminate the primary themes of gender, race, class and regional chauvinism that inform this debate.

Long story short: Julian Harris's position on crumbling held true to the views of the long-standing southern establishment. Huey Long, from the backwoods of northern Louisiana--and very much the populist--dunked. He stuck to his dunking guns to prove his populist point. Of course, as John T. wrote, there was a lot more to this than just how to handle a piece of cornbread.

Potlikker is more than the sum of the juices at the bottom of a pot of greens. It may be one of the more plebeian of Southern culinary creations, but never let it be said that potlikker is without import. Enshrined early in the pantheon of Southern folk belief, potlikker was prescribed by doctors and conjurers alike for ailments as varied as the croup and colic, rabies and fatigue. Though claims of its curative qualities may be farfetched, potlikker is indeed packed with nutrients, for, during the cooking process, vitamins and minerals leech out of the greens, leaving the collards, turnips, or mustards comparatively bereft of nutrients while the vitamins A, B, and C as well as potassium suffuse the potlikker.

For me at least, this translates as potlikker lining up to be akin to chicken soup in Jewish culture (the basis for a billion and one metaphors about life, folk cures, and shared family cooking). Greens are a really big deal--there's a Collard Festival held in Ayden, North Carolina. There are poems, essays, papers, and conferences...pretty much any sort of debate, discussion, or homage you can think of seems to have been paid to greens over the centuries.

In terms of how you cook your greens, there is, of course, a ridiculously large range of recipes and opinions. Some people like 'em sort of sweet, some people do shorter cooking, most use some pork, but some don't. Personally I'm big on a lot of bacon or pork of some sort, some chopped onion, a lot of long cooking, and a good bit of pepper. My experience, which is of course fairly limited, is that longer cooking begets more potlikker, and I like that. And probably because my Jewish roots still unconsciously relate this all to chicken soup, I actually really like potlikker on its own as a broth.

When you eat the greens, get some pepper vinegar to sprinkle on top. Northerners look at me rather strangely when I bring a bottle of it to the table, but most Southerners seem to smile, as if saying, "Damn, never thought I'd get that up here in Michigan."

So please don't dump the potlikker--and don't dismiss the greens as just some passing vegetable sidebar. The story behind that small mess of greens is a very seriously deep culinary, cultural, and historical one. John T. drove the point home by quoting from Richard Wright's Black Boy:

I lived on what I did not eat. Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air, and the pot liquor from greens kept me going...I would sit in my room reading, and suddenly I would become aware of smelling meat frying in a neighbor's kitchen and would wonder what it was like to eat as much meat as one wanted.