The Green New Meal
When I speak of greens, I’m not talking lettuce. I mean the kind of greens you cook: turnip greens, collards, kale, mustard greens.
As a child, I was introduced to this Southern delicacy by my grandparents. Granny had a special pot for her “greenery.” It was a thin metal, ribbed-sided pot with a wire bale topped with a cracked wooden handle and a lid that didn’t fit quite right. It had seen better days.
At least once a week she’d cook a grocery sack of greens along with a slab of fat back or a meaty ham hock. It was cheap, but good eating.
Vitamin Rich and Antioxidant Loaded
The dish was also simple to prepare, and Granny was not an adventuresome cook. She would first wash the greens, removing any large veins. Then she’d chop the leaves before stuffing them into the ribbed pot. After adding a little water, ham hock, and seasonings, she’d plop the lid on the pot and go back to her rocking chair.
Several hours later the wilted greens were ready to eat. She served them with cornbread to mop up the pot-likker, the nutritious juice that comes from the long, slow cooking.
Granny didn’t know it, but those mixed greens were chock full of vitamins A and C and were low in calories. Today we realize that dark green, leafy vegetables, along with blueberries and red wine, top the list of antioxidant-loaded foods.
Not for Everyone
Despite all the benefits, not every one in my family will cook or eat greens. I admit that it requires a special tolerance for the smell, that not everyone has developed. That’s why I’ve been reluctant to prepare them in my St. Louis condo, thinking there might be a city ordinance against air pollution that would apply.
But recently when Russ brought me a meaty ham shank and a sack of greens, I was as excited as a baby seal on an ice slope.
As I prepared my leafy haul for the pot, I recalled a collard story I related some years ago in my book The Tide Always Comes Back. I was shopping at Soulard Market. This conversation took place as I stood in line to buy greens.
“Gimme a Mess o’ Greens”
“I want a mess o’ greens,” I said to the vendor, knowing there’s a special terminology surrounding any discussion of greens.
He smiled, no doubt sensing that I knew the lingo.
“How many you feedin’?” he asked.
“Just me,” I said, “but I want some leftovers.”
“A grocery sack feeds four,” he said with authority.
I knew from watching my grandmother, that a “mess o’ greens” cooks down to about a fourth, or less, of what you put in the pot.
“Okay, then, I’ll take a half-sack,” I said.
The young lady behind me, wearing a tastefully coordinated linen outfit with Birkenstock sandals, was eyeing the arugula and shiitake mushrooms.
Hearing our conversation, she wrinkled her nose and asked, “Is that stuff really good to eat?”
The two elderly African-American women standing in line behind her laughed.
“Lord, you don’t know good until you eat greens,” one said. I nodded in agreement.
Despite our shared enthusiasm for the ol’timey dish, the arugula woman wasn’t about to take a culinary risk based on our advice. Her loss.
Find a Pot Half the Size of a Tuba
Later when I showed my daughter the half-bag of leaves I’d bought, she asked, “What are you going to cook those in?”
Well,” I replied. “You know what Louis Armstrong said when asked how he cooked red beans and rice: “First, get a pot half the size of a tuba . . . .”
“But now that you live in a condo, you don’t have a pot half the size of a tuba. You gave it to me,” she said.
“Oh, that’s right,” I replied innocently. “Will you take these greens home and cook them for me?
“Nothing doing,” she replied. “We’re cooking fish and veggies on the grill tonight. Why don’t you come eat with us?”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bring the greens.”
“We’re going to have plenty to eat,” she replied with a patronizing air. “Why don’t you just keep those for yourself, since you enjoy them so much more than the rest of us.”
And That’s What I Did
I suppose I could’ve invited a friend to share my bounty. But in St. Louis I only know one other person who eats greens and she was out of town.
It was just as well, because I didn’t feel like sharing. I ate them with great delight, like one would secretly devour a box of Godiva chocolate—but without the guilt and with lots of memories of my grandmother’s kitchen .
(Revised from my book The Tide Always Comes Back.)
- Eat Green
- Get a Flu Shot
- Keep Hope Alive!