Hail to the Collard Green
Collards have graced the tables of North Carolina families for generations, and many people agree that a holiday meal would not be complete without them. In fact, according to Southern lore, collard greens served on New Year’s Day represent paper money, and eating them will bring fortune in the year to come.
The oldest known member of the cabbage family, collards are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamin C, fiber and nutrients galore. But folks across North Carolina love them because they’re good, old-fashioned comfort food.
Lloyd Lewis, 72, has been growing collards since he was 18 and eating them nearly all his life. He was raised on a hog farm, so his parents had plenty of ham hocks on hand for seasoning the leafy greens.
“My mom cooked collards quite a bit,” Lewis says. “We grew nearly everything we ate, so we hardly ever bought anything at the store.”
Lewis grows collards and other veggies on his 30-acre Cleveland County farm, where he lives with his wife, Sara. Collards are planted in late August and ready to harvest in late October or early November. He sells his produce at four farmers markets and a roadside stand on Highway 18 North.
Howard McAdams also grows a variety of produce on his farm in Efland – including strawberries in the spring, okra in the summer, and collards in the fall and winter.
“We started selling at the farmers market in 1998, and we’ve increased our vegetable production since then,” says McAdams, whose Orange County century farm has been in operation since the 1880s. He sells his produce at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market and the farmers market in the lobby of the UNC Children’s Hospital.
Both McAdams and Lewis point out collards don’t make up a huge portion of their business, and Lewis notes that kale and broccoli sell better. Still, the tide may be turning in favor of the Southern super food. In April 2015, Food Network’s Healthy Eats blog proclaimed collards to be the new kale, and Kinston chef and restaurateur Vivian Howard dedicated an entire episode of her PBS show, A Chef’s Life, to the greens.
“Southern food in general is far more popular than it used to be, and collard greens are probably the biggest symbol of Southern vegetables,” she says. “I think chefs and diners latch on to the collard because it’s so ubiquitous in the South.”
Flash-fried collards are one of the top sellers at Chef & the Farmer, Howard’s restaurant.
“People get very excited about them,” she says. “They’re kind of reminiscent of the very popular kale chips.”
In fact, collards are beginning to see the trendiness of kale, popping up on menus around the country.
“In the world of greens – spinach, turnips, kale, Swiss chard – collards are probably the most versatile,” Howard says. “You have an opportunity to do the most with them. Chefs in other regions are thinking more about collards as a green. And in North Carolina, ethnic restaurants are using collards in place of other greens native to their countries.”
Louis Nixon of Pigs Plus Farms in Edenton also knows a thing or two about preparing collards. He grows and cooks all the collards marketed through Nixon Family Restaurant, his family’s business. The cooked collards are packaged in 5-pound buckets and frozen. Then, they are sold to restaurants, food distributors and grocery stores.
“All you have to do is thaw, heat and eat them,” Nixon says. “They’re already seasoned with sugar, salt and smoked pork jowl.”
Nixon started the cooked collards business around 2007 and cooked 10,000 pounds the first year. The following year, he doubled the amount of collards cooked and sold. By 2014, he was filling orders for 50,000 pounds of collards.
“We start cooking them in November when we get the first frost because it tenders them up,” he says. “We cook about 1,400 pounds of collards a day, five days a week, through the first of January.”
The collards often sell themselves, thanks to their one-of-a-kind, soul-satisfying aroma.
“We have neighbors come and tell me, ‘We can smell your collards cooking from a mile away,’ ” Nixon says with a chuckle.
He says they sell best during the holiday season and colder months.
“When you think of a North Carolina holiday, collards have to be part of the meal,” Nixon says. “Of course, I’m a country guy, so I eat them year round.”
The secret to getting the perfect flavor is all about the preparation and timing.
“All the older folks will tell you, the more you heat them, the better they taste,” Nixon says. “The trick is to heat them slowly over low heat, so they don’t overcook or get mushy.”
At her Kinston restaurant, Howard offers an unusual twist around the holidays: collard leaf dolmades, made using collards instead of the traditional grape leaves. In lieu of lamb and rice, she stuffs them with sausage, pecans and cranberries, and serves them with sweet potato yogurt.
“Because collard greens are so sturdy, they make great wrappers,” she says. “You can even use them instead of a tortilla for a burrito. They’re very versatile.”
Meanwhile, Lewis touts the simplicity of the traditional Southern cooking method.
“People nowadays don’t want to cook as much,” he says. “But they’re real easy – you just throw them in water and boil them.”
Most cooks boil the collards with a ham hock and some diced onions, salt, sugar, and sometimes vinegar.
“They’re a green that has a really good taste,” Lewis says. “People will like them if they’re prepared well. We eat them with pinto beans and cornbread.”
– Jessica Mozo