Today’s Eating and Drinking Poems post is for all the nostalgic or displaced Southerners out there, who yearn for collards, but live far from comfort food havens or the homes of plump southern grandmothers. Let Lucille Clifton’s poem ‘cutting greens’ get your stomach growling, then head down to your local farmer’s market in search of fresh, delicious leafy greens.
When I lived in Washington, DC one of my favorite neighborhoods was the U Street Corridor with its long history of culture and activism. Until the 1920s, when it was overtaken by Harlem, the U Street area was the largest urban African American community in the United States, and that’s where you’ll find one of my favorite restaurants: Busboys and Poets, so named in honor of Langston Hughes.
I’ve been thinking about Busboys and Poets lately–missing it, actually. For those outside the Metro DC area, Busboys and Poets is a combo restaurant/bookstore/performing arts space. If you like books, food and the arts, this place is where all three of your fancies can be tickled at the same time. But today I’m missing a specific item off of their menu–not even an entrée, but a lowly side dish. What I’m in the mood for is southern greens, preferably served with a nice pork tenderloin, black-eyed peas, and maybe real southern cornbread (not that stuff people up north put sugar in). Done right, southern greens are not bitter or slimy. They should be delicate and cooked just enough not to be chewy or stringy. I prefer mine with a dash of vinegar. Some like theirs with hot sauce. As my granddaddy would say, whatever floats your boat.
Greens, which can be almost any variety of green leaf vegetables, such as kale, collard greens, turnip greens, or spinach and mustard greens, are a staple vegetable of southern cuisine. For the sake of this discussion, what I’m hankering for are good old-fashioned collard greens with a delicate gourmet touch.
I would say that I longed for the greens of my grandmother’s table, but as a child I studiously avoided them in favor of macaroni and cheese or fruit salad. This might have something to do with the fact that Granny thought the best way to prepare greens was to boil them until they were khaki-colored and limp. Any wonder I went for the fruit?
The secret is to harvest the greens when the weather is cool (never hot) and to add a little brown sugar. This recipe also requires taking your time. You’ll be delightfully surprised at how tasty eating cooked greens can be. Or the next time you are in the DC area, make your way over to Busboys and Poets, pull up a chair, order something lovely to eat, and enjoy a Spring day in DC.
Southern Style Collard Greens
2 large bunches collards, roughly chopped and stems discarded
3 slices hickory smoked bacon
2-4 cups water
1 yellow onion, minced
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
hot sauce to taste
black pepper to taste
1. Fry the bacon in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until just done, but not quite crispy. Add the onions and collards and sauté in the hot grease until wilted.
2. Pour the water in the pot — it should just cover the collards. Add the brown sugar, minced garlic, apple cider vinegar, salt, and a few dashes of hot sauce.
3. Bring to a boil, then cover. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 3 1/2 – 4 hours.
4. Season with additional salt, hot sauce, and pepper to taste.
Oh, and the last secret: for good digestion, flavor with poetry.
curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kiss making hand and
the iron bedpot
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In April, we’re exploring the theme Cheese.
- Eating and Drinking Poems: WendellBerry’s “Fall” - October 24, 2014
- Eating & Drinking Poems: Dorianne Laux’s “A Short History of the Apple” - September 12, 2014
- Eating and Drinking Poems: May Swenson’s “Strawberrying” - August 8, 2014