n: Country cousin of kale, typically stewed with smoked meat
When a certain department store touted frozen collard greens on its website ahead of Thanksgiving last year for a cool eighty bucks (including shipping), you could almost hear the collective groan. Southerners, in particular, took umbrage. Were these not the same sturdy and cheap greens that sustained many a family for centuries? Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala) aren’t native to the American South, nor did enslaved Africans bring the plant here, as some folklore suggests. Researchers believe the greens descended from wild cabbages grown in Asia in prehistoric times, then spread throughout Europe—the Greeks and Romans were big fans. Nonetheless, Southerners claim them as their own. The West Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans living throughout the South in the seventeenth century shared an appetite for the greens and collards grew easily here—in gardens high and low, from Monticello to the quarters of enslaved peoples—providing essential nutrients like iron and vitamins A and C into the region’s mild winter.
Not all Southerners were raised on collards, however. Jason Alley, chef and partner of Comfort in Richmond, grew up in Southwestern Virginia—a pocket that’s partial to turnip greens—and didn’t taste collards until he was a teenager. “That first bite, you’re like ‘Whoa!’ They’re funky and super-earthy,” he says. “But it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with them.” Today he likes to serve them raw, finely chopped and tossed in an apple butter-bacon vinaigrette. But after the first frost, typically around Thanksgiving, when collards are believed to be at their sweetest, Alley gussies them up with a whole lot of dairy and showers them with breadcrumbs and benne for a dish that one of his chefs says “tastes like the last few bites of Thanksgiving dinner.”