The Power of Collards
By P.J. McKendrick • December 9, 2017
Some of the richest memories of my childhood are of trips to my parents’ hometown of Albany, Georgia, usually to visit my maternal grandmother, Evelyn. After stopping for fast food and bathroom breaks, the trek from central Virginia to southern Georgia took us about eleven hours. Each hour we drove further from the hustle and bustle of the lower Mid-Atlantic to the humbler sentiments of the deep south. To adolescent me, humble sentiments were things like sleeping on the couch in my grandmother’s living room and staying up until the wee hours of the morning exploring the wonders of late-night cable television. In reality, it also meant being forced to spend hours with older relatives and random people who had apparently met me when I was a rambunctious toddler. Admittedly, I sulked whenever I heard my mother mention that “so and so is on their way over here.” I quickly came to realize though, that Evelyn offers food to almost everyone who walks through her front door, and hardly anybody ever declines. Chances are, at any given moment, my grandmother has either candied yams, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy or some combination of them. She always has collards, and collards seem to be the most common choice among her close friends and relatives who are stopping by for afternoon visits.
Like many people, I was unenthusiastic about vegetables during much of my adolescence. Collards in particular, I found to be boring and tasteless, causing me to wonder what the point of even eating them was. This changed after I discovered Popeye the Sailor for myself. While staying up in my grandmother’s living room until ridiculous hours of the morning, I would marvel at the adventures of this scrappy, cartoon sailor. A true tough guy he was. And apparently what made him so tough was his taste for spinach. I watched as Popeye got his ass kicked by bigger men until a can of spinach made him undefeatable. These moments watching a silly cartoon touched the soul of a young boy who was discovering his own athleticism and even masculinity. Clearly the consumption of spinach was the difference between a boy and a man.
“Mom, why don’t we ever eat spinach?” I asked in my grandmother’s kitchen one morning, as if there was something wrong with our family because we didn’t indulge in enough of Popeye’s key to success. She was unaware of my sudden affinity for Popeye the Sailor, and this ticked her off.
“Collard greens are spinach,” she said, dismissing my concerns.
“Do they make you really strong?” I asked. “Because when Popeye eats spinach, it makes him strong enough to do anything. Nobody can come close to beating him.”
“Oh, Popeye! I used to love Popeye when I was little. Yeah, collards are really good for you. They’re just like spinach,” she said, before I began babbling about the potential of collards changing my short life. For the sake of my own naivety, I continued to call and think of these collards as spinach.
Later that evening my mother, father, grandmother and I all sat down for dinner at her large, white table-clothed dining set which consumed most of what was her dining room and living room. Ham, cornbread, mac and cheese, stuffing, and of course collards were all being served. It was a normal evening in this small, southern household. We passed around the different plates of food and began serving ourselves. Everyone got nearly equal shares of each food, except me. I decided to pass on the stuffing, instead opting for a mountain of a serving of collards. My father was the first to notice my plate. He chuckled. “Why you got so many collards, man?” he asked.
“I need to eat this spinach,” I told him with glee.
“Spinach?” he asked, perplexed. My mom instantly remembered our short conversation from earlier and interjected.
“Oh, it’s…nothing, don’t worry about it,” she said before casually shifting the topic of conversation to gossip involving someone she and my father grew up with. I dug into my small mountain of collards and did my best to feel whatever it was that gave Popeye the strength to punch men over the top of entire buildings. For the first time, I appreciated both the taste and texture of collards. With every chew, they provided a light and pleasurable crunch. The leaves were saturated with salty juices that occasionally found their way down my chin. The juices gave the leaves weight and made them surprisingly heavy. Adolescent me was convinced. This was the difference between boys and men. I continued to devour the collards and occasionally take bites from the ham and macaroni. Quite a bit of food was left on my plate when my stomach became absolutely stuffed.
At some point in my life, I learned that collards are not the same as spinach and that neither of them provide steroid-like effects. My appreciation for the hearty greens has maintained though. I enjoy almost all types of vegetables today, but collard greens are my favorite. Making the dish is not very difficult, and it can be modified in many ways to fit different tastes. Here is a recipe on how to make southern-style collard greens, which I pulled directly from the website Foodnetwork.com.
- ½ pound of smoked meat (ham hocks, smoked turkey wings, or smoked neck bones)
- 1 tablespoon of house seasoning (recipe follows)
- 1 tablespoon seasoned salt
- 1 tablespoon of hot red pepper sauce
- 1 large bunch of collard greens
- 1 tablespoon of butter
Ingredients for house seasoning:
- 1 cup of salt
- ¼ cup of black pepper
- ¼ cup of garlic powder
- In a large pot, bring three quarts of water to a boil and add smoked meat, house seasoning, seasoned salt, and hot sauce.
- Reduce heat to medium, before letting cook for one hour.
- Wash the collard greens thoroughly. Remove the stems that run down the center by holding the leaf in your left hand and stripping the leaf down with your right hand. The tender young leaves in the heart of the collards don’t need to be stripped. Stack 6 to 8 leaves on top of one another, roll up, and slice into 1/2 to 1-ince thick slices. Place greens in pot with meat and add butter. Cook for 45 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally. When done taste and adjust seasoning.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours
Total time: 2 hours and 20 minutes