Plumstone: Collard Greens

I am seven. And I’m walking with my family down our street to an old man’s house. They say he is going take us to supper. I do not know him and I do not know his name. And I am hungry right now. All I know is that we are turning left on the sidewalk toward a dark brick home and there is a big silver camper in the driveway. I remember seeing the silver bullet from the other side of the house—riding my bike through the alleyway between my house and the public library.

Daddy is ringing the doorbell and it takes a long time for a bald figure to show up at the door. I remember him now from church, the slow-moving man. He is talking to my parents and I am pretending to listen while I stick my fingers in the oblong holes of the front porch table’s wire top. My daddy looks at me and points to the camper and tells me it is called an “Air Stream.” The two had been talking about it since Daddy had complimented it to break the quiet after “Hello.” And now the old man is talking about how the white suburban parked next to it pulls it without a problem and Daddy nods and hums his approval.

I think they would have talked forever, but the old man’s hearing aid battery went out. He went back inside and is now coming out with a package of strange batteries. Momma helps him install new ones in the big tan hearing aids. We are taking two cars and I end up riding with one of my brothers and Momma in the old man’s tan sedan and Daddy follows with another one of my brothers.

We are in the car for a long time—we left our town of Indianola and now we are headed to some other town that I guess has better food. When we finally get there I run to the door of the restaurant to fling it open.

I am staring right into a line of steam tables where people stand waiting to fill their plates with food which I do not recognize—all but the fried catfish and hushpuppies. The room is paneled in wood and the chairs screech on the floor and the cushions of the chairs are covered in sticky plastic. A lady comes by to clear the table where the old man has led us and wipes a gray rag over each of the seats, leaving tiny lines of water. I wipe mine off with a napkin and then go through the line.

If it had been up to me I would have kept to the things I recognized, hushpuppies and catfish. My uncle who lives in Dallas runs a restaurant called “Dinger’s Catfish Café” and I love those things there. Momma comes behind me and instructs the hair netted ladies with spoons and tongs and ice cream scoops to pile on a little of this and a little of that. I am horrified at the sight of it all. But mostly it is that dark green stuff with a piece of bacon lost in it that I am afraid of.

I eat all the fried things on my plate, the catfish, the okra, the hushpuppies, and now poke with a plastic fork at the dark green pile in one of the sections of the Styrofoam plate. I gag when Daddy makes me take a bite of the bitter, slimy greens.

“Collards,” he says as he takes a dangling fork full and gulps it down. “Your great aunt, Aileen makes great collards. These are really good too. See, there’s bacon in these. Yum!”

I am not very impressed and I hope I never have to eat collards again.

“Something we wouldn’t normally buy,” was my instruction to my housemate after he asked if I knew of anything we needed at the store. He got back late and I inquired about the mystery item the next morning as we mumbled over cups of coffee.

“Collard Greens!” he quipped.

I do not think he knows my history with the bitter, leafy greens. So I look forward to cooking them and sharing a piece of my story.

Nowadays I really like greens, from Collards to Turnips or otherwise. I suppose it reminds me of a home I once had, a culture, a people, an accent. Also, I just think they taste good. If you cook them long enough and you add enough good stuff to the pot, they are tender and bold in flavor from garlic and a smoked hambone and onion and maybe some vinegar. And I have heard they are healthy too.

I cannot find Aileen’s recipe right now. The one below is what I think to be the along the lines of the most generally accepted and proven.

This recipe is from The Cross Country Cookbook. My grandmother got it from a friend years ago.

Collard Greens—a mark of the plain people
Wash greens. They shouldn’t be too old or too coarse. Cut finely. Boil them in water until tender (at least one hour). They cannot be cooked too long. Good warmed over (Makes good leftovers). Cook in enough water barely to cover with several thin slices of white bacon (“fatback” or “salt pork” or just really fatty bacon). The water should almost cook away, leaving one to two cups of pot liquor. Cornbread is always served with collards. It is proper etiquette to dunk cornbread in pot liquor.

My great-grandmother, who lived in Alabama and who they used to call “Big Mama,” would always put a red pepper in her collards to make them a little spicy.