A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia

Dear Newgrorati on #BlackTwitter,

If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories. And if you want to change a culture, change the stories.—Michael Margolis

We need to have a talk about collard greens. Like, now.

Apparently some – y’all thought Whole Foods was punking you with “new-fangled” recipes and a stock pic of collards with peanuts. Y’all went off and went deep. Think again.

We can’t get cemented in stereotypes about our food culture. Our tradition is so old and so broad it deserves more respect than lazy assumptions and not being informed. Let’s go deep…read this….

Oh yeah….greens in peanut sauce and greens with peanuts. Guess what…we were still doing that in the Deep South in slavery time…we kept seasoning and flavoring our greens with sesame and peanuts and salt fish well into the early 20th century. Why don’t you know about that? Easy..these traditional preparations became less and less popular as we moved further away from the generations born in Africa. I.E., the more acculturated we became the further we moved from some of our healthiest foods…its a cultural tragedy in the age of massive chronic illness among African American folk, my family included.

Let’s talk about collard history though my Newgroes, because we need to break this down…

The collard’s complicated story with African Americans really speaks to the way food can unravel the mysteries of complex identities. 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 as he traveled through Hanover County, Virginia:  “The Negroes here raise great quantities of snaps and collerds
(sic) they have no cabbages here.”

Ezra Adams—South Carolina—formerly enslaved said:

“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 (where peanuts are in everything) (nguba=goobers) 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.


Green Glaze Collards

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.


This food connects us to the globe. It connects us to Africa. It connects us to slavery, to freedom, to sharecropping, to migration, to triumph, to survival. It’s a powerful symbol of our history, our social identity, and the cuktural politics we negotiate our lives by.

We don’t mind cultural diffusion. That’s a natural and important consequence of being human and living in community with other humans. However the “collard is the new kale,”/”ooh look whole animal cooking”/wow isn’t this food so barnyard tasting..” that’s got to end. I don’t think that’s what WF was going for, but we’ve seen it so much it’s untenable and it drives us crazy. You don’t have to be Jewish to eat Levy’s Rye, and you don’t have to be “Colored” to love collards, but this is the key….being culturally aware needs to be a value in our society–for all of us. We need to revisit this collard thing next January when cooler heads prevail, I’ll be happy to give you some reading material.

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, Cultural Politics, Diaspora Food Culture, Food and Slavery, Pop Culture and Pop Food, The Cooking Gene and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia

  1. This is a glorious mix of history, inspiration and culinary thought-provokingness.

  2. Excellent work! Eating, narrative and research–I’ll keep reading.

  3. davidbeinct says:

    Love your blog. Found it by way of a Salon article on “A Birthday Cake for George Washington.” From there clicked a few links and found you. I’m a white man who’s been cooking collards, kale, turnip, mustard greens for going on 30 of my 53 years and have always appreciated the history of where the food I love comes from, and will continue to be an avid reader of your blog.

  4. marjorierommel says:

    Collards. My Scottiish granny BELIEVED in collards. They were as essential to her as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and the cabbages my English grandfather grew — big as buckets — on the other side of the garden. And I love them! Love all the greens… except that slimy one, which I simply cannot abide. Eating, research, and narrative — plus collards! An unbeatable combination.

  5. We appreciate your work. All the way from Ghana, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Nigeria!

  6. Pingback: A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia | synkroniciti

  7. Michael, got a good boiled collards recipe to share?

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