Edward H. Davis and John T. Morgan have written the definitive book on the history of collards in Collards: A Southern Tradition From Seed to Table. The journey they take is part mystery, part geography, part horticulture, part folklore, and great recipes.
Now if you are like most people, you think of the collard as a Southern dish. As with many Southern dishes, like rice, okra, and watermelon, one might think that the collards origin is from Africa. One of the most fascinating finds in Collards is that the Southern collard is most probably not from Africa but from jolly old England. I, too, was surprised.
As the plant was dying out in England in favor of cabbage, it was finding new life in the old South. Davis, who writes about collards on his blog, Collard Geography, inaugurates it with this personal tale:
"I grew up without collards because my mother (Lucy Claytor Davis) hated (and still refuses) to cook them. It is the smell, of course. In fact she won’t allow anyone else to cook them in the house. Instead, she offered me many kinds of green vegetables – peas, green beans, lettuce, broccoli… But I was worse than your typical child on this subject – In spite of persistent nudges (in fact, daily doses – it seemed like medicine to me) I would not allow anything green into my mouth. "
Collards got a bad rap from their rather pungent smell during cooking. Some people, like Davis' mother, simply refuse to cook them in their house. One also runs into the socioeconomic stigma of collards -- they are the food the poor folks ate. The section on collards in the history of cookbooks is an area we were drawn to. The earliest cookbook by and African American woman, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, by Abby fisher contain not a single recipe for collards.
Mary Stuart Smith's Virginia Cookery-Book doesn't contain collards either and even cabbage gets a short shrift.
"This vegetable, so staple and article of food among out-of-door workers, has fallen into general disuse with the upper classes on account of the disagreeable odor it emits, permeating every corner of an ordinary constructed house from garret to cellar."
It wasn't till the early 1970's that Southern Living published a recipe for collards. It was the first big wave of Southern cooking going mainstream in the form of Soul food which, "members of the jet set ...have discovered."
1/4 pound salt pork
1 large bunch turnip, mustard, or collard greens
1/2 cup boiling water
Salt to taste
Cook the salt pork in the water for 10 minutes, add washed greens, and cook until tender. Salt to taste. Don't overcook. Serve with vinegar.
Not much water if you want a lot of potlikker, but it was a start. And now, you can't trow a stick at Southern Living without hitting a recipe for greens. Collards, not just our favorite side dish, but a book whose time has come.