If there’s one food that transports me back to my childhood, it’s collard greens.
I have fond memories of standing on a rattan-backed chair turned backward, sitting on my knees and watching Bigmama wash her greens in cold water. Most often, when the weather was pleasant, she would bring a small plastic tub and we would sit outside on the porch and pick the hearty leaves. I watched her fold the leaves along the stalk and pluck the stem up to where the leaf begins to flower.
When greens are prepared the traditional way, they are cooked low and slow, and the pork fat and greens are reduced and marry into the broth. This liquid gold is known as potlikker, or pot liquor. It was also referenced in a Fort Worth Morning Register article dated Thursday, Aug. 2, 1906. One quote of particular interest is:
And we have always had the conviction that the lack of it caused the failure of the confederate army. If General Lee’s commissary department hadn’t run out of bacon and greens and thereby necessarily cut off pot liquor rations, he would have licked Grant
A plethora of edible greens – such as turnip and mustard – can be traced all over the world. But the almighty collard is a native plant of Greece and a close relative of the cabbage.
Locally, Indigenous Americans have used native weeds and flowers like wild onions, pokeweed and dandelions to consume their edible leaves.
According to Oklahoma History and Culture, “From February to April wild onions are gathered for a major spring event of all of the Five Tribes of eastern Oklahoma. Wild onion dinners are held privately in homes and publicly, often in churches, to raise funds.
Prayer and singing in the native language sometimes accompanies dinners held in churches.” Five southeastern tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole) are credited with starting the festivities in southern Oklahoma. Texas continues this tradition as well.
The Southern approach to cooking greens can be traced to Africa. North Africans, for example, have been cooking their beetroot leaves into a brothy concoction since prehistoric times, while West African prepared yam and turnip greens the same way – a method that was not traditionally used in Greece.
Multiple types of collards exist. Heirloom varieties, though hard to come by, are quite the contrast to commercialized variations and can fluctuate by color and size. Heirloom vegetables are seeds that have been passed down for many generations to prevent them from becoming extinct. A Fort Worth accountant who is quickly growing in popularity is Joe “Collards.” Joe, a graduate of Stephen F. Austin University, owns 200 acres of farmland in Central Texas where he grazes cattle.
But he reserves about five acres for growing sweet yellow and red “meat” watermelons and popular heirloom collards, mustards and turnips. Grandmother Beaulah Nelson had quite the green thumb and introduced a young Joe to farming back home in Louisiana. She grew up on a plantation and learned to grow okra, tomatoes, greens and other veggies. Not surprisingly, this is how the popularity of greens spread within Black households. On plantations, greens were some of the only crops the enslaved were allowed to grow and eat. In turn, Black cooks introduced the greens to the white enslavers and settlers.
Without saying specifically where, Joe says his heirloom greens can be traced to the early 1930s in Mississippi. His collard leaves are said to be some of the biggest on the market, and have little shrinkage when cooked.
Joe started taking his passion for harvesting seriously after his mother died, going as far as driving to Ardmore, Oklahoma, for continuing education courses in agriculture and farm production at the respected Noble Research Institute. He has put a considerable amount of thought and research into his craft and also has a successful digital marketing campaign that he credits the younger generation with spearheading.
His staff harvests crops in the morning, an arduous task that takes more than two hours. After this they make the roughly hour drive to North Texas to visit their pre-selected site.
Customers are usually already waiting for the truck to arrive, eager to gather the fresh fruits and vegetables for their families. But Joe’s impact on the communities he visits are far greater than the added benefit of logistics.
He is changing lives. And that has been Joe’s greatest contribution to date. The neighborhoods that he visits are typically made up of African American residents and other people of color – groups that often live in food deserts that are void of major grocery stores.
“When people tell me that they eat my foods, and this inspires them to make other healthy choices – that has meant the most to me,” he said. “One customer lost 100 pounds by changing her diet after we met and I showed her how to blanch and properly store her collards in the freezer.”
Follow Joe on Instagram and Facebook at “Joe Collards” to his next Fort Worth delivery locations.
Deah Mitchell writes about more than food. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.