Food for the Soul: Growing Up in the Collard Culture

Collards are a unique vegetable that shares a common glory between black, white and Native American people. Collards are celebrated on all sides of the southern family table. Collards are the pearl of the Real South that unites us rather than divides us.

Collards have been a part of Native American roots when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s and introduced the dark green leafy vegetable to America. Collard greens were just one of a few vegetables that African Americans were allowed to grow and harvest for themselves throughout times of enslavement. Even after African Americans were emancipated in the late 1800s, their love of greens continued and they kept handing down their well-developed repertoire of greens recipes from one generation to the next.

African Americans, Native Americans, and Europeans living throughout the southern states in the seventeenth century shared an appetite for the greens and collards are an easy crop to grow throughout the south. Most people know that Native Americans contributed many of the crops that we consider to be iconic such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, and pinto beans. But we might also properly celebrate the collard’s place among this pantheon. Collard greens represent the origins of Native American and African American identities through a mixture of suffering, hope and serious malnutrition as a heritage of Soul Food.

Soul food cooking is probably the first truly American cuisine since it represents combinations created on the spot to utilize native foods during harsh times through years of war, The Great Depression and crop failure. People learned quickly to “make do” with what they had and collards were one of those vegetables that were cheap and easy to grow. Collards are a major staple of soul food cooking because of its nutritious value and it is inexpensive for many poor families to obtain.

Saved from extinction by African American wisdom, collards have been mocked by so many as something associated with poverty and developed a perception of a second rate vegetable. My dad, Hughie Maynor, is a living testament surviving poverty as a child with collards, fatback and cornbread. He told me as a child he would eat collard sandwiches to get through the hard times when they didn’t have much food. Dad’s stories of his childhood involved going as much as three days without eating a meal. For a poor family, a garden planted with collards could provide a way out of starvation and get them through the cold winters.

Learn more about Hughie Maynor’s Civil Rights in Carolina: A Native American’s Story

North Carolinians officially first celebrated collards in 1949 when playwright Paul Green led a “Collards and Culture” symposium in Dunn. Paul Green was a Lumbee native of Harnett County and presented the pros and cons of the stigmatism associated with collards and culture that translated to a symbol of poorness and hardship. “You can live a collard man all your life,” he told the members, “and then die a collard man and have a collard at the heard of your grave. But if you would rise above it, you’d be surprised at the pleasure you’d get.

Green gave a passionate plea for “more vision and poets” and less emphasis upon material things. Collards should be considered like a carnation flower instead of casting it aside as meager and inadequate. Just like opera is a cultural thing, so are collard greens and they are just as good. Collards should not be viewed or interpreted as a bad symbol and urged us to move out of the commonplace and bring a new dimension to our collard lives.

Paul Green (center), a native of Harnett County and author of “The Lost Colony” is honored at a Rotary dinner in Dunn, North Carolina presenting a panel discussion on “Collards and Culture” symposium. (The News and Observer – Raleigh, NC; October 10, 1949)

Paul Green attacked some of our severest social problems as a crusader for social justice. He worked to secure equal rights for African Americans and Native Americans in education and employment. Generally, the more urban North Carolina elite was pretty snobbish and detested collards because of their common and plebeian origins. But the collard green to Green was a part of the common glory and we should celebrate the unique vegetable that has united black, white and Native American people rather than divided them. This common ground was, therefore, a pearl of the Real South.

Although there are many varieties of collards, African American and Native American tribes prefer the winter crop.  The main secret among many of our tribal families is serving the winter cabbage plant because they taste better after the frost. The cold air and the frost transform the starch in the collard leaf to sugar.  This natural process balances the bitterness of the collards.  Another secret to cooking up the best pot of collards is to harvest the whole head of the plant instead of cooking the outer leaves of the plant. 

Hughie Maynor has a unique way of planting seeds in his garden with help from his grandaughter.

I grew up in collard country, North Carolina alongside fields of cotton, tobacco and sweet potatoes. In my family, the traditional gatherings around the table always include collards, mama’s Indian cornbread, ham, candied sweet potatoes and a deer ham.  Recipes and traditions my mom and dad make have been passed down from my grandmothers and generations before them were truly farm to table.  Over the years I became a collard snob because to this day I have never tasted a “mess o’ greens” as good as my Dad’s.  He purchases his collards from a farmer who has been growing collards from heirloom seeds that have been in the family for more than 100 years.

My dad has a certain niche in the way he prepares collards. They are made with a bone broth of pork, but not from a ham hock, bacon or fatback grease drippings. His niche is boiling a corned ham and then using the ham bone broth to cook his greens and it tastes exquisite. If you haven’t tried this method, I implore you to try it if you can purchase a corned ham in your area.

While many plantation cooks prepared stewed greens during the period of slavery, plantation owners would often eat the greens but not the broth, making it a nutritious and available leftover for enslaved people we call potlikker. Potlikker is the southern version of french dip we use to sop our cornbread or cracklin’ bread with and has a folk remedy history of being the cure for what ails you. Folks have claimed that potlikker can cure colic, croup, fatigue and the common cold. Claims of its curative qualities seem strange but potlikker is indeed packed with nutrients much more so than chicken soup. During the cooking process, vitamins and minerals leech out of the greens, leaving the collards comparatively bereft of nutrients like vitamins A, B, C and potassium that have steeped into the potlikker ham bone broth.

‘If you’re going to cook, cook with your heart. Never serve up something you wouldn’t eat yourself.”

I grew up in a large family and collards were a part of growing up. When our family gathers together, it is wall to wall people, kids running around playing, chaotic, noisy and I wouldn’t change a thing!  A typical native menu for any special occasion is overwhelming and overfilling.  There’s always too much food enough to feed several small tribes.  Whether is a holiday or after church gathering, other traditional foods on the menu may include chicken pastry, deviled eggs, fried fish, and a buffet of homemade desserts.  Thanksgiving celebrations include Mom’s stuffing made with leftover turkey giblets and skin that have been boiled in water to make a turkey broth.  She makes her stuffing with cornbread, chopped boiled eggs and the turkey giblets are added to the mixture with the homemade turkey broth.  My sister Brandy always brings her recipe of grandma’s candied sweet potatoes peeled and drenched with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and a variety of syrups.  Slow roasted on a low heat for a couple of hours, the result is candy-licious!   

Collards, pork and cornmeal bread are the common denominators of the soul food meal that unites all of us at many southern family tables. Soul – the word expresses a culture, a heritage, a feeling of unity and love that is prepared and served from the heart. Collards are quickly becoming a more prestigious food now being served in high-end restaurants and featured in magazines and television food programs. My Dad’s collard sandwich has become all the rage at Native American Pow Wow’s, festivals and state fairs. This simple and well-prepared vegetable deserves all the praise that’s being accorded to this once substandard plant.

The original collard sandwich – Long Swamp, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of My Home, NC/UNC-TV (November 12, 2015)

Growing up in a collard culture is filled with childhood memories that I will always cherish and pass down to my children and grandchildren. In fact, the collard country has turned out more artist, writers, musicians, folklorists, and historians than any other part of the nation. People who grew up in the collard culture appreciate their upbringing and strive to attain a more beautiful and finer civilization. The collard culture still works to achieve a fuller stature and advance the achievement of all people to enjoy a fuller life and to see the fruition of their perhaps long-denied dreams. I’m so blessed to have been raised in the “Collard Culture.”

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Hope Thompson
Hope Thompson

Hope Thompson is the editor and publisher of Unmasked History Magazine. She has been a freelance journalist for seven years and has published articles for popular media websites such as Her focus has been on the hidden history, Native American culture, Appalachian and Southern folklore traditions.

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