< Vegetables



Brassica oleracea

“This is decidedly an American vegetable, grown almost exclusively for Southern markets by people of the South.’ The common winter green of the southern table, the collard began the nineteenth century as the “colewort,” (indeed, dialectologists believe ‘collards’ a corruption of ‘colewort’) and some thought it not a distinct variety of non heading cabbage, but simply the early sprouts of a cabbage. The propensity of many cabbage varieties not to bunch and to grow as ‘long collards’ in hot climes caused antebellum cabbage growers to seek English or northern seed if they wished a head. Yet if one wished collards, one simply used the local seed of cabbage that failed to form heads. One of the prejudices against the collard arose from the widely held notion that it was simply a degenerate cabbage, not a distinct strain. The distinctiveness of the taste, markedly different than that of headed cabbage, converted numbers of the prejudiced. “When I first came from Virginia to Georgia I had been accustomed to white-head cabbage all my life, and I positively refused to allow a collard to grow on my place, until one day an old negro woman sent me a dish full, and ever since that time I have planted them.” Even in the 1890s, agriculturalists testing the greens in state experimental stations observed, “judging from the samples grown the name collards is a very indefinite term.” Yet sometime during the 1860s and 1870s, distinct varieties of collard began to be cultivated and seed circulated among devotees of the plant. The seed for collards came on the market in the United States in 1875, when a transplanted Yankee began selling Georgia-grown seed to dealers for $.50 a pound. Because of a general propensity to resist insect infestation, these cultivars attracted the notice of breeders wishing to enlist this quality in the more valuable headed cabbages. Their significance was best summed up by a writer in 1905: “The collard is the best hot-climate plant of the cabbage family for greens. . . . Instead of having a broad, well rounded leaf, like a cabbage, it has a narrow, deeply lobed leave, and these leaves are arranged in a characteristic rosette. The tender young leaves below the top are cut off and eaten, and plant grows up to height of two or three feet, forming new rosettes above while being robbed of its leaves below. Collards are to the South what kale is to the North.” In the mid-1990s Mark Farnham began collecting the various landrace collards grown in the Carolinas for the USDA National Plant Germplasm Collection. The variety of leaf forms discovered were noteworthy.

As early as the 1840s, travelers and cultural commentators noted that collards inspired strong appreciation in the up country south and among the poor. “The uninitiated may be curious to know what collards are; and since you have the profoundest sympathies of the writer, patient reader, if you have never eaten any of them, he will undertake to enlighten you a little on that subject. Collards are a species of the cabbage plant, of a dark green color; they are cultivated like cabbages, and have almost the exact appearance of cabbages until they become advanced in age. The cabbage heads; the collard does not head. But the collard does begin to head, and forms a closed lump in the center about the size of an orange, which turns white after being touched by frost, while the surrounding leaves are only streaked with white. To the inhabitants of the country districts of the South, where there are no markets, and the daily allowance consists of salt meat, rice, potatoes and the like, and where fresh beef is scarcely ever tasted by the poor people, the collard is a very great blessing; because when boiled in a pot with a piece of fat meat and balls of corn meal dough, having the size and appearance of ordinary white turnips, called dumplings, it makes palatable a diet which would otherwise be all but intolerable.”

Collards send down deep roots, so a foot of excavation to clear the soil of stones, sticks, and debris improves the growing. Mix manure or compost with the soil. Form the soil into ridges and either (1) plant seed and thing sprouts until at least a foot and a half separates the shoots, or (2) transplant young plants from a nursery bed. If doing the forming, run a half inch deep furrow along the ridge and scatter seed liberally into it. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil. Water if the weather is dry. Plantings took place twice a year, in February or March, and in July. Harvestings took place when the greens were about two feet tall. The sign of a novice farmer was stripping the underleaves of the plant allowing the central growth to attain 4 or 5 feet.

A touch bitter in taste, a bit rough in the leaf, the traditional collard varieties—The Georgia, the True Georgia, Rosette Collard, and the White Collard—were married in the cook pot with bacon, salt pork, or smoked meat of some sort and boiled an hour at least. It might be mixed with other greens in potlikker. No other mode of preparation was recorded in print in the nineteenths century. Indeed, in a host of travels and memoirs the collard pot became so common a vignette of rural southerness that it verged on cliché. “When the frosts come, the leaves of the collards are streaked white and, when boiled, in a big iron ‘pot’, hung on trammels, placed in the big fire-place, with a piece of bacon, pork or corned-beef, together with the well known ‘corn-dodgers,’ they furnish the dish de resistance.” In the early twentieth century some cookbooks recommended bedding boiled salt fish on boiled collards. But a culinary minimalism has always surrounded the ingredient. They enjoyed a reputation for being nourishing, filling, and strong-flavored. Yet they also had another reputation—for breeding melancholy, flatulence, and colic (the “child of collards” according to a character in a William Gilmore Simms romance). Brandy was thought to be a counteragent to these effects.

Old Blue Georgia    History

- dark dusky green and sturdy uncrinkled leaves on tall stems

White Georgia    History

- white stalk and ribs veining a blue green leaf

Rosette Colewort    History

- also known as “Hardy Green Collards,” grown in Europe and more compact than American “long Collards”

True Southern    History

- dark green lobed leaf

Cabbage Collards    History

- yellowish and milder tasting than Georgia Collards; short stemmed.

To Cook Cabbage-Sprouts (Home Cookery 1853)    History

Pick and soak them in cold water till time to cook and boil one hour, salting while boiling. P. 142.

“Collards,” or Cabbage Sprouts (Unrivalled Cook Book 1881)    History

Pick over carefully; lay in cold water, slightly salted, half an hour; shake in a colander to drain, and put into boiling water, keeping at a fast boil until tender. A piece of portk seasons them pleasantly. In this case put the meat on first, adding the greens when it is parboiled, and cooking them together. Boil in an uncovered vessel. Drain, chop, and heap them in a dish, laying the meat on top. Mrs. Washington, The Unrivalled Cook Book and House keepers Guide (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1885), p. 184.

Greens (Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book 1872)    History

Kale, or cole, mustard, cabbage sprouts, turnip tops, to any of which may be added a few beet tops, the young shoots of the poke plant, all make good spring greens. Pick and wash them; let them lie in cold water at least an hour before they are used. Put them on in plenty of boiling water, salted; boil briskly twenty minutes; they will sink to the bottom when done. Take them up in a colander; press the water from them; put upon a hot dish; cut across the leaves in several places with a sharp knife; pour over melted butters; dress with poached eggs, either placed upon the dish of greens or served as a separate dish. They are not good unless served hot. Some persons prefer greens boiled with a piece of bacon or hock bone of ham. No matter in what way they are cooked, poached eggs should accompany them. Mrs. A. P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (New York: Carleton, 1872), pp. 187-88.