Cabbages aren’t fond of broiling heat and so does better in spring and fall in the South, whereas collard greens are well suited to the heat of a Southern summer. They’ve never been as well received in the North, but in the South they knew no cultural boundaries.
“The collard, to the rank and file of Georgia Crackers, is what the potato is to the Irishman, and a dish of collard greens is a sine qua non of the dinner of the farm laborer, black or white.”
Collards grow in a unique pattern with the top leaves gathering to form a center rosette. By cropping, or cutting the under leaves and leaving the rosette intact in the top, the greens will produce an abundant crop of leaves throughout the year. That made them especially dear during hard times.
The more the collard is cropped, the taller grows its stem, and it is nothing unusual to see straggling rows of stems some four feet high, crowned at the top with a rosette of dark-green leaves, and with brave little sprouts putting out up its entire length where the leaves have been taken off for cooking. They live all through the summer, grow delightfully tender and juicy under Jack Frost’s attentions, and then in February go to seed along with those which have been sewn in the fall for the special purpose of making seed for sale to the dealers.
The European collard descended from the wild cabbages and is the oldest form of brassica. They were also called a rosette colewort, green rosette colewort, or simply collard, and was capable of forming a small head although it was generally cut for greens. It grew to a height of 8 to 10 inches. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans left records of loose leaf coleworts that were grown as well as harvested in their wild form.
These plants were grown in the U.S. by 1699, and over time evolved into the Georgia collard which grew taller and was especially appreciated in the South. “It is not likely that collards will become popular in the North, as kale is common and cheap and better adapted to a cold climate.” It is not known exactly when the Georgia collard made its debut, or who is responsible for its altered characteristics, but in 1905 one writer claimed the first Georgia-grown collard seed had been sent North some 35 years prior.
In 1896, a comment was made that, “Everyone knows how good a dish of collard greens are with a “chunk of bacon”.
In 1880, John Green described the importance of collards in the Southern diet by saying:
To the inhabitants of the country districts of the South, where there are no markets, and the daily allowance consists of salt meat, rice, potatoes and the like, and where fresh beef is scarcely ever tasted by the poor people, the collard is a very great blessing; because when boiled in a pot with a piece of fat meat and balls of corn meal dough, having the size and appearance of ordinary white turnips, called dumplings, it makes palatable a diet which would otherwise be all but intolerable. And they are very dearly liked by nearly everyone who has been raised on Southern soil, including even some of her most dignified statesmen.
Seasoning is of prime importance in turning the ubiquitous collard into the perfect harmony of greens, fat, salt, and pepper that we appreciate so well. That characteristic flavor comes primarily from smoked meat – originally bacon, ham, ham hock, or fatback, and in recent, more health conscious times, smoked turkey pieces.
In the late 1880’s, Parthenia Hague wrote of her experiences in Alabama during the Civil War and said she knew Southern men who claimed they had not had a good dish of collard greens or cabbage since the war years. The reason Mrs. Hague gave for that was that in pre-war times there had always been a plentiful supply of bacon supplied for the slave cabin and for the tables of the whites, the fat from which was generously added to the pots of greens that slowly simmered for hours before being served. During the war years and Reconstruction bacon and other meat was very scarce and thus the flavor of the greens paled in comparison to those of former times.
William Cullen Bryant wrote of the inhabitants of South Carolina hunting alligators for the tail meat in 1850, and quoted a South Carolina woman as saying, “Coon and collards is pretty good fixins, but ‘gator and turnips I can’t go, no how”.
Collard greens figured prominently on the list of vegetables grown for market in the South. Just after the turn of the century, several hundred acres were bound for the Atlanta market alone. “While it has been a leading vegetable in the Southern home garden for a century or more, yet up to ten years ago was not offered to the trade”.
We’ve seen that collards are simply coleworts which continue to grow in a loose leaf pattern, are pretty basic, and were known in many cultures. Let’s conclude our discussion with a look at how they were prepared. In the spirit of Hannah Glasse’s “First Catch Your Hare”, with collard greens, “First get yourself a good cast iron pot” for that traditional flavor.
During the war years callalou was a mixture of collards, poke salad, and turnip greens, boiled for dinner and fried over for supper. “This was the invention of Jimsy, an old negro brought over from the West Indies…” Poke is native to North America, South America, possibly East Asia and New Zealand so if Jimsy found it in the East Indies it was introduced there, but collards grew in numerous areas other than the southeastern U.S.
Mr. Harris’s comment meant that Jimsy knew how to cook flavorful greens, including collards, and probably adapted the technique to whatever greens grew nearby. – Harris, Joel Chandler. A Plantation Printer. 1892. London.
In very early Kentucky times, the universal dinner, winter and spring at every farm house in the state, was a piece of middling bacon, boiled with cabbage, turnips, greens, collards or cabbage sprouts, according to the season. The pot, if the family had a large one, contained about ten gallons, and was nearly filled with clean pure water, the middlings and the greens were put in at the proper time, to give them a sufficient cooking. Almost always the cook would make with water and corn meal and a little salt, dough balls, throw them into the pot, and boil them thoroughly with the rest. These were called ‘dodgers’ from the motion given them by the boiling water in the pot. They eat very well, and give a considerable variety to a dinner of bacon and collards. – Halls Journal of Health. January 1859.
Collards are cabbage in which the fleshy leaves are not formed into a head but are long like cos lettuce. This variety is grown principally in the southern part of the United States where they do not have sufficient cold weather to head or harden cabbage. Collards are usually boiled in salted water and served according to any of the rules for cooking kale, spinach, or chopped cabbage. – Rorer, Sarah Tyson Hester. 1909. Philadelphia.
SOURCES: The Garden Magazine. Feb. 1905. Poultry, Garden, & Home. March 1896. Hague, Parthenia. A Blockaded Family: Life in Southern Alabama During the Civil War. 1888. Davis, James R. Up-to-Date Truck Growing in the South. 1910. Atlanta. Southern Cultivator. 1889. Green, John Patterson. Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, and Superstitions of the Carolinas. Bryant, William Cullen. Letters of a Traveller. 1850. London.