Countdown to the Campaign’s End: I’m Proud to be a Collard Person :)

Green Glaze Collards

Yes, we’re going to keep posting it until the campaign ends on May 6th, at 11:59 PM Pacific Time……Because that’s how crowdfunding works and this work is not a hobby–its a job–we say G-d bless to our 70-plus funders thus far but strongly encourage our visitors, Facebook and Twitter followers to please make a donation of 18$ or more to the Cooking Gene Project on Indiegogo.  If you have 18 or more, please donate and save our project!  This is my life’s dream to find out where my ancestors came from and cook “with them” so please help us!  Here ya go:  http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour

OK—now onto “I’m Proud to be a Collard Person”

Seven days from now I guess we find out if we’re going to the Land of Cotton to find out more about my—and America’s culinary roots. As we rev up and make plans we want to give everybody a rush of blog posts to get any last minute “deciders” and “funders” an idea of what we’re really doing with the money we raise.  Bottom line: We’re telling stories—old stories anew and new stories nobody’s heard before about what enslaved people gave to American food and how my Ancestors fit into that story.  The moment that someone declares that everything there has to be done or learned has been done or learned, that’s when we get a ton of new important information about a topic—and to me this is more than a topic—its more than trivial—it’s my heritage, it’s my tradition, it’s where I come from.

If there is any American vegetable that screams African-American it’s the collard green.  There are many Collard People running around, but we aren’t all Black, some of us are green J   The collard’s complicated story with African Americans really speaks to the way food can unravel the mysteries of complex identities.  On the Southern Discomfort Tour—we hope to visit Hanover County, Virginia…historical ground one for the collard green in the enslaved community.  Here in 1781, Captain William Feltman of the Continental Army gave the first documentation available thus far linking Black folks in the Southern U.S. with the collard.  “The Negroes here raise great quantities of snaps and collerds
(sic) they have no cabbages here.”

Ezra Adams—South Carolina

“If you wants to know what I thinks is de best vittles, I’se gwine to be obliged to (admit) dat is is cabbage sprouts in de spring, and it is collard greens after frost has struck….I lak to eat.”

Background History

Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala) are not African,  they are temperate and Eurasian in origin, but their consumption, and with them—turnip, kale, rape, mustard and other greens are a healthy blend of tastes—West and Central African, Scottish, Portuguese, German and the like.  Many culinary historians agree that the green craze in the South is supported by tastes for spring greens among Celtic and Germanic Southerners but was really spearheaded by people of African descent.  In tropical West Africa, greens were available year round in gardens and markets and figured prominently

in regular meals.  Unlike Northern Europeans, West and Central Africans had a climate that supported a continuous variety of edible greens from both cultivated and wild plants.  Amaranth, celosia, inine (African spinach), and the leaves of cowpeas, cassava, okra, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables helped make up the 30-60 edible leaves prepared during the age of the slave trade.  Long before America there were varieties of plants botanically cognate to chenopodiums and phytolacca (read lambs quarter and poke) in West Africa.  Often referred to as “relish,” these African greens were made into a sauce to be eaten with rice, fufu or millet and some groups associated them with sacred medicine and vitality.

At some point in the Middle Ages, cabbages and turnips diffused south to what is now Mali from Morocco to feed Moroccan salt traders and scholars visiting Timbuktu.  While the first generation arrival of these plants was not said to spread out of the Moroccan quarter, these vegetables are still grown in the Sahel today as valuable market crops.  As early slave forts sprung up via the Portuguese trade, so did gardens to supply their dietary needs.  Cabbages and turnips enjoyed only measured success and usually depended on microclimate conditions that allowed for cooler breezes and night temperatures.  Kale and colewort (get it?  “collard” comes from colewort —chou vert/couve/cole) were frequently mentioned in letters and records of slave forts and their gardens.  You better believe these seeds and plants left the shelter of the forts and began making their way into the interior of what is now Ghana, Angola, Senegal and Nigeria.

Meanwhile African culture was happily eating greens gathered from the wild, the garden and from trees.  In Chinua Achebe’s classic novel of the pre-colonial Igbo world, Things Fall Apart, Ezinma, the charmed daughter of the main character, Okonkwo prepares “green vegetable” with her mother, noting a folktale where the greens shrink down and cause a catastrophe as a cautionary tale to pick as many greens as are necessary to feed one’s guests.

African and European tastes converged with greens “seasoned” with a bit of meat or salt fish and highly peppered merged with Portuguese caldo verde (greens soup, traditionally seasoned with linguica—or Portuguese cured meat/sausage) and later obtained the spiky taste of the capsicums—the New World “peppers.”  At least one reference refers to Africans adopting the European’s “cabbage soup,” noting that the elites enjoyed more meat with it and that it was highly seasoned with hot peppers.   In Brazil, couve or collards are a staple in the Black diet, and are a classic accompaniment to feijoada, the national dish of Brazil…a blend of African, European and Amerindian influences all under the umbrella of Afro-Brazilian spirituality…since it is a favorite dish of Ogum/Ogun, the Orisha of iron, war and meat.

Back to Hanover County, Virginia and beyond… Collards were not raised everywhere nor were they necessarily endemic to the South.  Coleworts were “sprout” greens…eaten while tender and non-heading, and as the descendant of kale and cabbage, the collard could be raised into the mild Southern winter where it sweetened under successive frosts and provided greens despite the season.  It is highly possible that the first Africans in Virginia, being Afri-Creoles from Portuguese Angola would have known the colewort and appreciated it’s cultivation by their 17th century English captors.  The collard was in gardens both high and low, but their popularity was certainly encouraged by the presence of greens-loving cooks of African descent.  Some commentators described enslaved people’s quarters crowded with collard patches.  They were raised at Monticello and sold to the Jefferson family as well as cultivated from time to time in Jefferson’s experimental gardens.  “Sprouts” included a whole family of leafy non-heading greens but the colewort was chief among them:

Lettice Bryan’s Sprout (Read Collard) Recipe, The Kentucky Housewife 1839

Should be boiled in every respect like turnip salad, served warm with bacon, and seasoned at table with salt, pepper, and vinegar.  All kinds of salad should b thoroughly washed in two waters, otherwise it will be gritty. 

Remember that ritual your mother used to do of washing and cutting the greens?  That’s ancient stuff.

The variety you see in the picture above is my personal favorite, Green Glaze.  They are pretty, waxy, crisp, tough against bugs and extremely delicious.  They also happen to be the oldest variety we have/know of collard green dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with the Georgia Southern or Creole collard out of the Deep South going back to the 1860s-1880s.

 

Slave Food: The problem with being Collard People

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad meant well when he wrote Eat to Live, in fact he presaged a host of health problems in the Black community and their larger detriment to the health and economy of African American communities.  However, he had a few bumps on the way including collards unfit for human consumption.  Actually, cowpeas, sweet potatoes, collards, kale, red peppers, onions, string beans and the like are fantastic natural foods.  Our ancestors ate Superfoods! Their role in preserving and benefiting the enslaved person’s diet—and the diet of those right out of Emancipation was widely noted:

“To the inhabitants of the country districts of the South, the collard is a very great blessing; because when boiled in a pot with a piece of fat meat and balls of cornmeal dough, having the size and appearance of ordinary white turnips, called dumplings, it makes palatable a diet which would otherwise be all but intolerable.”  James Patterson Green, North Carolina

Just Remember: Collard People Come in All Colors :)

About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in African American Food History, African Food Culture, Diaspora Food Culture, Food and Slavery, Food People and Food Places, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting, Recipes, The Cooking Gene and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Countdown to the Campaign’s End: I’m Proud to be a Collard Person :)

  1. dianabuja says:

    Very nice blog. Collards are the main greens in Kenya – and a variety of amarath is the most grown and popular here in Burundi. See this link for central and east Africa blogs on collard greens. http://dianabuja.wordpress.com/?s=sukuma

  2. Pingback: Making an Organic Slurry with goat dung Pt.2 « Dianabuja's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s