Collards: A Southern Tradition From Seed to Table
A new book from The University of Alabama Press offers a full-length survey of the emblematic and beloved vegetable.
Collard greens play a central role in the South’s culinary traditions. A feast to the famished, a reward to the strong and a comfort to the weary, collards have long been held dear in the food-loving Southern heart. In Collards: A Southern Tradition From Seed to Table, Edward H. Davis and John T. Morgan explore the fascinating and complex history of the vegetable, starting with collards’ obscure origins.
Like a good detective story, the search for collards’ home country leads the authors both to Europe and West Africa. Crossing back over the Atlantic, the authors traverse miles of American back roads, from Arkansas to Florida and from Virginia to Louisiana. They vividly recount visits to homes, gardens, grocers, farms and restaurants where the many varieties of collards are honored, from the familiar green collards to the yellow cabbage collard and rare purple cultivars.
In uncovering the secrets of growing collards, the authors locate prize-winning patches of the plant, interview “seed savers” and provide useful tips for kitchen gardeners. They also describe how collards made the leap from kitchen garden staple to highly valued commercial crop. They find collards at the homes of farmers, jazz musicians, governors and steel workers, ultimately demonstrating the abiding centrality of this green leafy vegetable to the foodways of the American South.
Below is an excerpt from Collards that gives credit where credit is due and explains why the leafy green has such staying power in Southern kitchens:
Brassica oleracea is one of agriculture’s most versatile vegetables, since it has been “domesticated” into seven different forms: collards, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi. These seven plants are distinct enough that many people will enjoy one and despise another, even though they are actually the same species, just as breeds of dogs are all the same species. What you like or dislike is largely dependent upon what you are raised on, and what you are raised on is largely a consequence of where you were raised. Geography matters, even to the palate.
African American cooks deserve the lead credit for the diffusion of collards across the South. These often uneducated women and men carried in their ancient cultural wisdom two important notions: dark leafy greens are essential to our health, and proper proportions of peppers and other spices make cooked vegetables taste much better. So the collard, a rather minor player in British cuisine, would become a major one in the American South because of African culinary and nutritional wisdom. Exactly how that happened may have fallen between the cracks in the historical record, but in this work we have collected glimpses of the collard’s remarkable story from over two centuries and across ten states. Today, outside the South, the green is still barely known, and even most Southern children find enjoying collards requires repeated efforts, yet this food clearly has the gumption to stay with us. This book is about that gumption—how a simple plant, properly grown and cooked, holds the power to find approbation from millions of Southern palates.
Collards: A Southern Tradition From Seed to Table is now available from The University of Alabama Press.
Recipes for Collard Greens: