A Mess of Greens

by Ari Weinzweig

dump-the-potlikkerSomeone who just moved to town this year asked me when locals here start getting sick of the winter. I think it’s about that time for me —I’m ready for the markets and ready not to have to wear so many clothes when I’m out running. And I’m ready to get back to going the farmer’s markets. In the mean time, if I’m going to get a sense of good vegetable eating this time of year, a mess of greens is good way to go. I’m not really sure why they always say “a mess” but that’s what most people down South call ‘em. In fact, Angie Mosier who’s a food writer, cake decorator, photographer, singer, baker, incoming chair of the Southern Foodways Alliance and one of my good guides through the once totally foreign world of Southern food told me that “you always refer to greens as ‘a mess of greens’ and given that she’s never steered me wrong (other than maybe about late night whiskey drinking) we’ll just go with what she says. Aside from the drag of the mid winter blues, a good half a dozen customers have commented to me on the greens being really good lately which is a lot for something that’s generally considered up here just an afterthought on the plate alongside the barbecue they come with.

I guess in truth, though, the even bigger reason I got focused on the greens was probably because of the potlikker. For those like me who didn’t grow with it and don’t it, potlikker is the “broth” in the pot from the cooking of the greens. One afternoon, a few weeks back, I was at the Roadhouse when Ted (who you’ve pretty much all seen, quietly and very effectively cooking the grill if you’ve been out there) brought out the next pan to prepare for dinner. He took the old, nearly empty of sixth pan of greens out of the steam table and started to drain off the potlikker. I just happened to look over and saw that, having carefully and appropriately taken out the remaining bits of greens to serve, he was about to dump the potlikker. Without really thinking about it I blurted out, probably way too loudly, something along the lines of “Wait! No! That’s the best part!”

(I was going to leave this story anonymous so as not to in any way embarrass Ted, but I realized that, of course, he’d know immediately that it was him—he and I have been joking about the incident ever since it happened a few weeks ago. And because, in truth, the fact that he’s such a diligent, effective and skilled long team member of the kitchen crew actually makes the point all the more effectively—up north hardly anybody knows about potlikker. But hey, there was a time that people here didn’t know about pimento cheese, Piquillo peppers, hamentaschen, or a million other things that we now sell tons of. So why not potlikker?

In truth, it was very clear to me right off that the fault in this narrowly avoided potlikker pouroff incident lies with me for not teaching better. Most every time I unexpectedly get mad like that, I’ve learned that I have a unspoken expectation, and this was no exception—I had potlikker and greens very much on my mind because of the feature on African American foods but I hadn’t really talked all that much about to everyone else. So all Ted was doing is what every northern born, potlikker deprived line cooks and just regular people (LIKE ME, and like Ted) would have done. Take out the greens, dump the liquid. Fortunately, in this case, I caught Ted before he threw the potlikker away. Instead I sent it out as samples to a bunch of good customers, all of whom (not surprisingly) loved it (cuz it’s really good!)

While most everyone in the South generally seems to like greens, there’s no question that they play a particularly big role in African American cooking there and then anywhere where southern blacks moved out to the rest of this country. Having learned a bit (a LOT, lot more to learn still) about the historical role of greens in the Southern kitchen I realized that all Ted and I were unknowingly doing was recreating what used to go on in the plantation kitchens; white masters wanted the cooked greens, but they ignored the potlikker. By the slave cooks who—a) were understandably always working to provide food for their families, and b) understood the high nutrient value of potlikker—happily drained it off the greens and used the broth to feed their own folks. Today it’s worth having a bit of the potlikker just because it tastes so good. But I think it’s also worth raising a shot glass of it as a respectful toast to the slave cooks who did the unglamorous work to develop the roots of African American eating that the rest of us get to enjoy today.

Like barbecue, pimento cheese, fried chicken and all those other famous foods of the south, I’ve learned, and continue to learn, how much emotional attachment, varied approaches and downright difficult arguments one can get into on the subject of greens. Of course being from the north and Jewish this is all way out of my background and not something I’d ever have known about without starting to study. I’m continually amazed (in a good way) how what’s seemingly nothing more than a side dish on a menu to the casual observer turns out to be another person’s passion and pursuit—in contrast to my own ignorance to the issue of greens, John T. Edge (now head of the Southern Foodways Alliance and one of the best food writers around) did his entire grad school thesis on the subject of “Potlikker and Corpone.” Although I’m sure he winces a bit as every one of us who writes often does when we go back and reread something we wrote a long time ago, I learned a ton from reading John T’s paper. In truth the fact that he did so much work on the subject has probably added to my unwitting procrastination—it’s hard for me to write just a thousand words on greens when John T. spent years doing homework and put together 30+ pages (plus 70 more of support materials) on the subject. But given that none of you have read his thesis I’m going to overcome my completist/perfectionist tendencies and just get this out there. (If you want to read John T.’s thesis I’ll ask him if it’s ok . . . )

Aside from some of the factual, historical and culinary stuff I’ve touched on already about greens, the first thing I stumbled on in John T.’s work was what must be old news to every southern history major but was totally new to me. Embarrassing in all my many years of studying food and history both, I’d never heard of the great “Potlikker and Cornpone Debate” of 1931. Google it up and you can learn more. Although formal old school non-food oriented historians seem to downplay the importance of the debate, John T. did it up right (I think), going far beyond the surface level stuff, and looking deeper into the cultural issues at play. The debate is particularly relevant, I realized as I was reading, since we’re right in the height of the primary. Anyways, with that in mind, rewrite the whole thing I think I’ll just pull a couple key bits from John T’s work:

“The Potlikker and Cornpone Debate pitted Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, against Huey Long, U.S. senator-elect from Louisiana. The traditionalist Harris argued that Southerners crumble cornpone into potlikker. The insurgent Long countered that he preferred to dunk. What began as lighthearted aside to the hard news of the day quickly became one of the primary news stories of February and March of 1931.”

And . . .

The Potlikker and Cornpone Debate of 1931 began when Julian Harris, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution, verbally assailed Huey Long, governor of Louisiana and United States senator-elect, over the question of whether cornbread should be dunked or crumbled into potlikker. The debate quickly escalated, and, for approximately twenty-three days, between February 13 and March 8, 1931, engaged most of the South and much of the nation. Extensive newspaper accounts and correspondence from the time illuminate the primary themes of gender, race, class and regional chauvinism that inform this debate.

Long story short: Julian Harris position on crumbling held true to the views of the long standing southern establishment. Huey Long, from the backwoods of northern Louisiana and very much the populist, dunked, and he stuck to his dunking guns to prove his populist point. Of course, as John T. wrote, there was a lot more to this than just how to handle a piece of cornbread.

Potlikker is more than the sum of the juices at the bottom of a pot of greens. It may be one of the more plebeian of Southern culinary creations, but never let it be said that potlikker is without import. Enshrined early in the pantheon of Southern folk belief, potlikker was prescribed by doctors and conjurers alike for ailments as varied as the croup and colic, rabies and fatigue. Though claims of its curative qualities may be farfetched, potlikker is indeed packed with nutrients, for, during the cooking process, vitamins and minerals leech out of the greens, leaving the collards, turnips, or mustards comparatively bereft of nutrients while the vitamins A, B, and C as well as potassium suffuse the potlikker.

For me, this translates (not sure rightly or wrongly so) as potlikker lining up to be akin to chicken soup in Jewish culture. The basis for a billion and one metaphors about life, folk cures, and shared family cooking. Greens are a really big deal—there’s a Collard Festival held in Ayden, North Carolina. There are poems, essays, papers, and conferences . . . pretty much any sort of debate, discussion or homage you can think of seems to have been paid to greens over the centuries.

Leaving politics aside there’s a whole ‘nother discussion here which is which type of greens to be cooking. Up here at the Roadhouse we haven’t really formulated a huge allegiance to one particular type of green. We use mostly collards, but in truth that’s probably more just because that’s what we use than because we’re all passionate for them. While we may alter the type of green we use on any given day, it’s almost always either collards, kale, mustards, turnips or, on occasion, radish greens. We cook ‘em for hours with lots of applewood-smoked bacon, and serve ‘em with a bottle of pepper vinegar on the side.

What I’ve heard from John T. and others is that each region of the South has its greens preference much as they do with barbecue. In general it sounds like the Deep South kicks it for collards, and in the Upper South they go more for turnips. You can of course, also mix and match your greens I suppose; it’s safe to say that in a setting of poverty one used whatever greens one could get. As with all cooking, people of course used what they had and/or what they knew. I’ve seen some folks using kale and others radish greens (which are very good I think but all too often tossed in the garbage by those who don’t realize you can cook them.) Having done a lot of work in the last few months writing about Irish cooking, I chuckled to see John T’s reference to the Irish community in New Orleans using cabbage instead of collards. Personally I’m partial to mustard greens (especially red ones). Knowing little about all this greens stuff, I was then surprised (in a good way I guess) to read Lolis Eric Elie’s essay on the subject in which he said, “The civilized peoples of the world, whether they be in the metro New Orleans area or as far away as Maringouin or Acadiana, have long been in agreement on one basic truth: In the hierarchy of greens, the mustard is king.”

In terms of how you cook your greens there are, of course, a ridiculously large range of recipes and opinions. Some people like ‘em sort of sweet, some people do shorter cooking, most use some pork but some don’t. Personally I’m big on a lot of bacon or pork of some sort, some chopped onion and lot of long cooking and a good bit of pepper. My experience, which is of course fairly limited, is that longer cooking begets more potlikker and I like that.

Before I fall into writing an entire thesis here myself, I’m going to stop for the moment. To get back to my point . .

A_ the greens at the Roadhouse have been really good. Order some! They taste good and they’re good for you!

B) When you eat the greens get some pepper vinegar from to sprinkle on top. Northerners look at me rather strangely when I bring a bottle of it to the table, but most Southerners seem to smile like, “Damn, never thought I’d get that up here in Michigan.” The way I’ve come to explain the pepper vinegar/greens thing to those who don’t know it is to simply say, “Here’s some pepper vinegar for your greens.” Unless they nod knowingly, I then keep going with, “Down South, it’s like ketchup for French fries. Not everybody puts it on, but most people do. Waiters just bring it automatically to the table (or leave it on the table all the time).” They seem to get that image—it’s basic culinary word association I guess—fries get ketchup and greens get pepper vinegar. The pepper vinegar we’ve got right now is particularly good—little organic “chicken heart” (“they really do look like they’re the shape of chicken hearts” one customer told me the other day) that are sitting in the really good oak barrel-aged for two years Quebec apple cider vinegar.

(Last week you might have had the chance to taste Angie Mosier’s very fine Potlikker Soup, which is on the RH specials list—basically a mess of greens but much brothier so as to make it more of a soup. It’s good with pepper vinegar too.)

c) Please don’t dump the potlikker (there’s a t-shirt!). Probably because my Jewish roots still subconsciously relate this all to chicken soup I actually really like potlikker on its own as a broth. If you work at the RH a shot of potlikker actually a pretty good extra mile sample to send out (along with all the stories in this here five foods) to guests because it’s really good, most won’t have had it, it’s a good story and it’s cost is relatively low. If you don’t work at the RH, ask for a taste next time you’re in. (In either case, I’m realizing that in the interest off placing proper value for it—it’s basically really great homemade broth—we need to get a price for it on the menu—A quarter for a shot, a couple bucks maybe for a cup? Don’t hold me to those prices ok?)

d) Cornbread . . . goes really well with potlikker. AS per the soon to be famous all over Ann Arbor Huey Long and Julian Harris debate, potlikker really benefits best from some form of cornbread ready to be crumbled or dunked or whatever you want into it. Granted we don’t have it all the time yet at the Roadhouse but I’ll bet one day in the not too distant future we will. In the mean time you can make it at home and you can learn a lot about making it by going to the BAKE class on American Bread, which is coming up next on April 10.

(The BAKE classes are consistently getting rave, rave reviews so if you haven’t been to one yet definitely put it on your list. In fact, I’ll offer to pay for half of the cost of that class for any out-of-orientation ZCoB staff member who goes and writes up their learnings after the class (and gives me a piece of their cornbread). The class costs $100 regularly so . . .

For what it’s worth, I’m thinking we bring back the whole dunk vs. crumble debate thing back by asking the presidential candidates whether they dunk or crumble. I’m pretty confident even the best political handlers won’t have prepped their folks for that question!

e) Don’t dismiss the greens as just some passing vegetable sidebar– the story behind that small mess of greens we put on the plate is a very seriously deep culinary and socio economic and historical is very, very large. Taking again from John T’s work, “In his autobiographical work, Black Boy, author Richard Wright wrote:

I lived on what I did not eat. Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air, and the pot liquor from greens kept me going. Of an evening I would sit in my room reading, and suddenly I would become aware of smelling meat frying in a neighbor’s kitchen and would wonder what it was like to eat as much meat as one wanted.”