A Wintry Green Revives Old Memories: Collard Greens History

The Ancient Roots of Collard Greens

A dark, leafy vegetable full of vitamins and minerals, collard greens date back to prehistoric times and are among the oldest members of the cabbage family. Quintessential to Southern cooking, people believe the vegetable actually originated in the Mediterranean before appearing on plates in American communities. During the time of enslavement, Black people were allowed to grow and harvest only a few vegetables, including collard greens. They incorporated these greens into their cooking, and collard greens remained a staple of traditional fare even after emancipation.

Collard greens were likely domesticated 5,000 years ago, according to researchers at Tufts University, and they’re now grown worldwide. Collard greens are common throughout eastern and southern Africa, but are less popular in Central Africa. These greens are native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, but they grow easily in most U.S. climates. In 2011, South Carolina deemed the plant its state vegetable.

Growing and Perfecting Collard Greens

Collards, like kale, are a member of the cabbage family but they do not form a head. Though they can be purchased year-round, the greens are at peak flavor during the colder months of January through April. As a cold-season crop, they are a very hardy vegetable that can tolerate frosts and freezes better than most similar plants. They grow well in beds or pots, in full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. The best time for planting seed in the Sacramento area is February and the first half of March, as well as mid-August through October.

While you can eat collards raw, they give off a slightly bitter taste that cooking tones down. The fibrous greens offer many health benefits, such as being low in calories and cholesterol. However, because the vegetable has a high volume of vitamin K — one cup has up to 1,000% of the daily recommendation — people on blood thinners should avoid eating the greens due to their counteractive effect on the medication.

To produce soft, silky collards, stew them for up to four hours. Using an acid like vinegar or lemon juice during cooking helps balance the bitter flavor, while a fat like butter, olive oil, or bacon fat helps tenderize the greens. As folklore has it, collards served with black-eyed peas and hog jowl on New Year’s Day promises a year of good luck and financial reward

Collard Greens: A Family Tradition

For Edible Sacramento contributing chef Dennis Sydnor, collard greens evoke nostalgia. “Collard greens go back to early, early childhood. They’re one of my core culinary memories,” he explains. “My mom and her friends would go into fields in Elk Grove in the ’80s when it was just farms, and they’d pick collards and mustard greens.”

He says his mother brought the greens home and he’d help cut off the stems using a butter knife. The greens would be placed in a pot with ham hocks or smoked turkey necks, along with a stock from onions, peppers, and celery. “The flavor, there’s just nothing like it,” he says. “The greens impart a slight sweet, bitter flavor and they hold up well. They had this amazing texture, buttery and rich with the meat.”

On his father’s side, they paired collard greens with pickled tomato and onion. The family always enjoyed both styles of greens together.

“It was a communal thing within my home; we’d sit around the table and eat together. It was a labor of love.” Dennis Sydnor