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When I’d watch Thanksgiving specials growing up, I always felt like something was missing: They’d always show the final product of these intricate dinners, but never the families in the kitchen preparing the meal. To my family, that’s the most important part. If there’s one consistency in our Thanksgiving meal year to year, it’s not Thanksgiving itself—it’s the night before.
Due to the fact that my brother was six years younger, I was always tasked with helping my Grams and my mother clean the kitchen and prep the food to be cooked the next day; he'd sit in his high chair watching Harry Potter. Every year I’d put on my yellow gloves, way too big for my small hands, and proceed to scrub our sink until it shined. I took my job seriously; my Grams raised me to believe that the secret to her collard greens was in preparing them to be cooked—they were about to soak in that sink, of course. You couldn’t cut corners.
First we’d cut them from their stems to ease their bitterness, and then we’d set them to soak. The way my Grams did this was almost a religious act—she believed that if you rushed the cleaning of collard greens, then it would show in the final product. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, but the more we did it together, the more I realized: The soul of this dish, for our family, starts with the prep. That was the secret.
I grew up in a black home, with women well known for their cooking, and I’d like to believe I’ve followed in their footsteps, at least as far as collards are concerned. It’s a dish with real history—their origins date back to slavery, when slaves were tasked with making meals from inexpensive or otherwise cast-off ingredients. Collards and other coleworts grew profusely in the South, and they became a staple in our diet. I was raised to believe that when we make and eat collard greens, it’s a direct nod to our ancestors.
Some families like their greens chopped into smaller pieces; some like larger; some like their greens with a bite and others still like them softer—and that’s only where the debate begins. Collards were traditionally flavored with scraps like pig’s feet, ham hocks, or intestines, better known as chitterlings or chitlins. We still use them today; some families have adapted their recipes to use turkey neck bones. We serve ours with hot sauce, sometimes extra vinegar and red pepper flakes, and we always pour a bit of the potlikker —the juice that forms in the pot of greens when you cook them—in our personal bowls. My grandmother always told me that, for generations, the women in my family drank this for its nutrients. In her mind, potlikker could cure everything.
Some may see collards as just another side, but most things I learned growing up I learned over a pot of greens; my upbringing centered around what the women in our family taught us in the kitchen. We’d talk about the importance of getting an education over a pot of greens; about honoring the generation of black woman who came before me; I watched how my Grams showed her love for her daughter in law, my mother.
And no matter what’s happening in the world, the smell of a pot of simmering greens eases it all, for me. It reminds me of how far we’ve come, of my ancestors; it reminds me to keeping pushing in all facets of my life. We all believe our families make the best greens—but it’s not just because of how they taste. It’s the history behind them.