What's Leafy, Green, and Eaten by Blacks and Whites?

A tiny but illuminating controversy over collards.

Glory Foods / Flickr

This is a story about how tiny things come to divide us. Fittingly, it begins with a Tweet. Last week, Whole Foods Market sent this to its 4.81 million Twitter followers:

One imagines a marketing staffer drafting the Tweet without apprehension or anxiety. Obesity is epidemic. Americans suffer from their unhealthy diets in myriad ways. Who could object to a supermarket cheerily touting a leafy green vegetable? Alerted to the Tweet by a foodie who asked me to explain why it was controversial, I looked at it, vaguely recalled that Michelle Obama had included a collard-greens recipe in her cookbook, American Grown, and asked if maybe the Red Tribe was giving the Blue Tribe a bit of ribbing about its affinity for plant-based diets?

No, I was told. People are really angry.

Normally, I wouldn’t dwell on what I learned about a Twitter controversy. But this one so perfectly captures one perversity of digital media that it’s worth exploring in full.

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Let’s start with the national press, which brought the Collard Greens Kerfuffle to the attention of millions. CNN topped the results when I began my search. The news organization’s headline:Whole Foods gets in hot water with Black Twitter.”

Its author, Cara Reedy, chose to offer a first-person response:

You should try collard greens. That's all Whole Foods was trying to say when it tweeted a picture of collard greens with peanuts and a link to recipes.

But Black Twitter didn't take kindly to this. Whole Food's Twitter feed was quickly flooded with lots of memes and plenty of side eye. I was annoyed too, because like other African Americans, I'm tired of people "discovering" things that have been a part of black culture for hundreds of years.

Reedy quoted another Whole Foods critic:

"For other people collards are a trend––for us they are a tradition," said food writer and historian Michael Twitty. "We aren't against cultural sharing, it's the appropriation without credit that we object to." [Update: I later discovered that Twitty wrote one of the few nuanced articles on this controversy at his blog. You’d never have known his actual position on the matter from how the author of the CNN article quoted him.]

That struck me as peculiar. A grocery store urging people to eat a vegetable is not “appropriation.” And there is no norm whereby identity groups are “credited” for a veggie that they consume. Indeed, many would’ve been offended had Whole Foods Tweeted, “If you're not cooking with collard greens like black people do, you need to be.” Yet this wasn’t just an idiosyncratic opinion piece. CNN was far from alone.

The Root dedicated an article to the Whole Foods Tweet:

There have been reports and rumors that collard greens would be the next item to be gentrified and Columbused by the mainstream—that is, folks would be told that it’s a green that people aren’t using as much and ought to start using, completely ignoring its legacy in African-American Southern soul food, and how it’s a staple in black households nationwide. Whole Foods caught itself proving that hunch right by tweeting that people who aren’t cooking with collard greens ought to start, and then directing people to a link telling people to cook collard greens with peanuts.

Or at least that’s what the photo it used implied.

Yep, peanuts. Never in the history of Negrodom, in the history of the black Diaspora, in the history of these United Households of Black America, has anyone espoused the cooking of collard greens with peanuts. And if anyone did, he or she certainly didn’t suggest that it was “how to cook collards.”

And again, if someone did, they didn’t put the peanuts in the main collard green cooking pot. Oh no; they scooped up their share of collard greens, put it on a plate and sprinkled their own peanuts onto their share. (Everybody’s got somebody in their family who’s allergic to peanuts.)

Here’s the coverage at Eater:

Clearly bourgeois grocer Whole Foods learned nothing from the recent #GuacGate: The company caused some serious Twitter outrage yesterday when it tweeted a photo of collard greens inexplicably garnished with peanuts, giving people still traumatized by the New York Times' recent peas-in-guacamole suggestion a major feeling of deja vu.

The Daily Dot declared:

Well, seems white people are far from finished ruining other cultures’ foods. Whole Foods, which you may remember as the supermarket chain that tried to sell $6 “asparagus water,” invited social media scorn once again by tweeting a recipe for collard greens. How did it get the soul food staple wrong? With a liberal sprinkling of peanuts and cranberries.

At Huffington Post, Erika Hardison wrote the harshest of the takedowns:

The Whole Foods Twitter account thought its consumers and fellow foodies would appreciate their version of collard greens; collard greens, cranberries with peanuts and garlic. As you can imagine this tweet went viral in minutes as Black Twitter reacted with the funniest reactions possible. Can you imagine eating collard greens with garlic, cranberries and peanuts? Kale yes, but collard greens? Hell no. It's obvious the handlers behind the Whole Foods Twitter have never tasted such a monstrosity because the mere thought of garlic drenched collard greens decorated with peanuts and cranberries makes my melanin pale.

The idea of this uber-gentrified collard green recipe from a grocery store that sells $6 loaves of bread is so ridiculous that it is funny. Whole Foods should try their recipes in their offices first before presenting their Pinterest-inspired eccentric tastebuds on the rest of the world. Their remix of a soul food staple is a horrible fail to people who eat collard greens and people who actually enjoy food.

Like other sites, Mic did a roundup of critical Tweets, summing them up by declaring, “Black Twitter isn’t happy.” Mashable titled its story, “Whole Foods inexplicably wants you to put peanuts in your collard greens,” and noted the company’s followup:

That implies the original Tweet was culinarily clueless, even culturally insensitive. Neither type of error is compatible with long-term success as a Whole Foods employee. I’ll bet that marketing staffer had a bad day. And it must have been especially frustrating to be taunted and mocked by contemptuous journalists if the he or she actually knew something about the past and present of collard greens.

Here’s what I learned in ten minutes on Google.

Sean Brock, who was named Best Southern Chef by the James Beard Foundation, presides over Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2011, Bon Appétit named it the “Best New Restaurant in America.” His recipes have appeared in many places, including Food & Wine, which recently featured his Sautéed Collard Greens with Roasted Peanuts, calling the dish “bright and lemony, with a bit of heat from dried chiles and crunch from chopped roasted peanuts.” Here’s the photo they used:

Food and Wine

When the Southern Foodways Alliance awarded Joe Dabney its lifetime achievement award, it recognized the exhaustive work he does prior to writing his cookbooks. He “deftly weaves new oral histories with historical research,” the presenter of the award wrote, “and, in so doing, exposes a recognizably human face of Southern foodways that often flies under the radar of modern American life.”

For his latest book, The Food, Folklore, and Art of Low Country Cooking, Dabney spent a lot of time in Georgia. Among the recipes he chose to include in his collection of characteristic dishes was Savannah Peanut Collard Greens. He wrote that “brimming bowls of collard greens infused with peanut butter are one of the most popular dishes served at Andrew and Ellen Trice’s Angel’s Barbecue located on West Oglethorpe Lane in Savannah’s historic district.” The chef “picked up the idea from a friend who had visited West Africa and witnessed how it was done there.”

Deborah Madison grew up in Davis, California, spent time cooking at Chez Panisse, founded Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, and authored “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” On March 21, 2001, she published an article in the Los Angeles Times extolling greens, writing of collard greens, “Unlike the chard, whose leaves were a bit tattered and tired-looking, these were perfect. But not a single shopper even paused in front of them… the best of the lot were being overlooked. These, apparently, are the scary greens, the ones shoppers think are going to be too strong, too aggressive and, most likely, bitter. But I know otherwise.” The recipe she touted: Collard greens with roasted peanuts and crushed red peppers.

In Central and Southern Africa, it is common to pair collard greens with peanut sauce. Here’s an organic grocery store in Canada suggesting a recipe featuring that combination. Last Thanksgiving, Saveur recommended a recipe from Senegalese immigrant and Chef Pierre Thiam: “Creamed Collard Greens With Peanut Butter and Chile.”

Now, I should mention at this point that if one actually clicks through to the link that Whole Foods tweeted out, none of their collard greens recipes actually call for peanuts! Somehow, some of the press articles neglected to mention that the peanuts were merely visible in art that they used for the Tweet. That said, even those journalistic critics under the contrary impression should have figured out that...

  • Collard greens and peanuts pair well together, according to multiple renowned chefs, leading food publications, and the people of several African countries.
  • The Whole Foods photo almost certainly shows red peppers in the collard greens, not cranberries.
  • The sentence, “Never in the history of Negrodom, in the history of the black Diaspora, in the history of these United Households of Black America, has anyone espoused the cooking of collard greens with peanuts,” is comically inaccurate.
  • So is, “Whole Foods should try their recipes in their offices first before presenting their Pinterest-inspired eccentric tastebuds on the rest of the world. Their remix of a soul food staple is a horrible fail to people who eat collard greens and people who actually enjoy food.”
  • Likewise Eater’s snarky line about “a photo of collard greens inexplicably garnished with peanuts.” There is nothing inexplicable about it.

What’s most striking isn’t these errors. It’s how confident those articles were in their mockery. Whole Foods may well be the most-expertly-staffed grocery chain in America. You’d think that before publicly taunting it as culinarily clueless, hostile writers and their editors might have quickly checked whether pairing peanuts with collard greens has any precedent. If they did, it’s not evident in their stories. And in relaying what they presented as the consensus position of an outraged “black Twitter,” these same journalists misrepresented a large part of black opinion on Twitter.

I often see journalists and activists attributing positions to “African Americans” or “black people” or “people of color,” as if such a consensus exists. Often, the view in question isn’t unique to a race so much as an ideology, an activist movement, or a small subset of black people who are treated as stand-ins for the whole community.

Sure enough, a similar dynamic was at work here. It’s easy to find people on Twitter who favorited the Whole Foods Tweet, or who explicitly weren’t bothered by it:

Even among those who did critique the Whole Foods Tweet, most weren’t offended or aggrieved that something “problematic” happened. They were playfully signaling in wholly unobjectionable ways that peanuts with collard greens aren’t to their taste, in much the same way that many reacted with playful mock outrage when the New York Times Tweeted out a guacamole recipe that called for peas.

Take this woman's reaction:

And look at how she responded when accused of being too easily offended:

She wasn't offended at all. (She had her facts wrong about only white people pairing collards and peanuts, but non-journalists on Twitter aren’t expected to fact-check their jokes).

Her style of good-humored response was most common in the already small subset of “black Twitter” that even engaged on this subject at all. Yet some of the press coverage conflated such mock outrage with concerns about “cultural appropriation” of collard greens, as if there was evidence of group consensus around that concern.

Here’s how one black commenter reacted to The Root’s ridicule of Whole Foods:

I love black twitter, black culture, hell I even love black people (calm down that is my joke--as a card carrying member of the black family I can make jokes) but THIS is just silly. Collard Greens are very good, good for you, and yes a staple throughout black households in this country--but who the hell cares if someone wants to try them a different way and add peanuts, maybe even cranberries, I personally like to add garlic, peppers and onions with a little bacon and pan fry mine. All that matters is that people add this wonderful green to their diet and reap the benefits--healthy and tasty not matter HOW you prepare them!!

Said another:

“To think that we cooked greens or any other food in only one manner is historically inaccurate. We are a diverse people with many different hues and cooking reference. We cannot suppress our culinary and cultural identity and expect other groups not to do so.”

There was, in fact, no real conflict here between black people and Whole Foods, no cultural chasm between white and black. There was just a mostly fabricated kerfuffle.

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Kindle makes possible an instant purchase of Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seeds to Table, a book that confirms in well-researched prose what I know from my grandparents of Cajun stock: collard greens and mustard greens aren’t foods that black people eat exclusively or that white people are just now discovering. Lots of Southerners––especially poorer Southerners of all races––eat and enjoy collards.

“They are lined to the very core historical facts of the American South, in the confluence of African and British folkways,” the authors wrote. “Collard seed was deliberately transported from the gardens of ordinary British people. On the other hand, Africans––who were not allowed to carry a thing when transported to this country––nonetheless brought an asset just as essential: their culinary knowledge, which included an understanding of and preference for dark, leafy greens. That knowledge, and the food tradition among blacks and whites alike, no doubt saved many Southerners from starvation... Southerners, black and white, have intentionally sustained a very wise cultural trait in their preference for this food, in spite of considerable derision from outsiders––and even some insiders.”

Just as wine is widely enjoyed around the world, even as it has a special place in particular cultures, collard greens are both widely enjoyed and have a unique resonance in black culture, whether as a bitter reminder of slavery, a symbol of black resilience, or a widely enjoyed comfort food. The resonances are different for different people. Some black people feel no resonance at all or actively dislike collard greens.

None of that is at odds with the fact that white people have eaten collards for millennia. White Americans have eaten them as long as they’ve been on this continent. Georgia’s Confederate Governor, Joseph Brown, fled the capital with “his cow and a load of collards” when General Sherman came marching. In Gone With the Wind, a hungry Scarlett laments her ruined plantation and daydreams of pre-war meals, including “collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease.”

During the Depression, my poor fore-bearers survived, in part, on collards flavored with ham hock. My great-grandmother later taught me to prepare mustard greens that way.

Collards were not universally embraced among Southern whites.

“Some of the white people we interviewed in some parts of the South seemed surprised when they were asked if they liked collards,” the authors of Collards wrote, after conducting interviews in more than 400 counties across the South. “A few, trying not to offend, quietly intimated that ‘collards are black folk's food.’” In other words, they shared the same assumption as some of the people criticizing Whole Foods—the mistaken association of collards with one group. “Modern Oxford, Mississippi, however, gives no evidence of disgust for any greens: the local grocery stories sell plenty of collards, turnip greens, and mustard greens, to both black and white people, according to their produce manager.”

They go on to relate that back in January 1971, the upscale Southern Living Magazine published a spread titled “Southern Food Goes Gourmet” that declared: “Members of the jet set have a new ‘thing’ going in the food line. They have discovered soul food... Let’s face it: greens, ‘pot likker,’ and corn pone have hit the big time.”

In extolling collard greens, Whole Foods was doing the unambiguously good work of touting a healthy, nutrient rich vegetable. If the grocery chain improbably spurs more people to eat collard greens, as the Southerners of all races already do––and especially if some old or new fans eat them with peanuts and peppers rather than pork fat––that would be unambiguously good for those consumers, the nation, the environment, and for the market’s bottom line. Growing nutrient-heavy plants uses less land and water, and produces fewer greenhouse gasses, than producing most meats. (Not that I’ll be giving up my ham hock anytime soon.)

The journalists who criticized Whole Foods credulously passed along a small number of inaccurate Tweets while misrepresenting them as typical. It’s a tiny, trivial controversy. But the small amount of damage it did to the quality of public discussion accumulates over similar incidents where journalists are similarly overzealous in portraying interracial conflict, and may cumulatively amount to real harm.

There are so many injustices out there.

Persuading more people to take them seriously, to prioritize remedies, and to listen to people who are upset is much harder when parts of the press are fabricating outrage, stoking needless division, exaggerating cultural differences, portraying black people as monolithically angry, and abandoning any pretense of rigor.

Had journalists reacted to the Twitter controversy by delving into the subject to add context, rather than exaggerating the starkness of divisions between black and white culture in America (credulously amplifying inaccurate Tweets), they would’ve found that the leafy green vegetable is part of a more nuanced story, one which suggests more cross-racial similarities than many perceive.