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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.)