Collards are more than just a side dish on a southern holiday table. In a way, they’re part of the cultural fabric of Eastern North Carolina. PRE’s Jared Brumbaugh has more on how this humble cruciferous vegetable has become a tradition in the Tar Heel State.
Collards are a quintessential southern food gaining popularity around the country. The leafy green cool-season vegetable is touted as a superfood rich in vitamins A, C and K plus iron and calcium. North Carolina is third in the nation for collard production, just behind South Carolina and Georgia, respectively. There are three common varieties of collards grown in our state: cabbage collards, southern collards (also known as Georgia collards), and Morris Heading.
Despite a dry summer and Hurricane Dorian in September, many farmers are reporting a bountiful harvest this year. Collards are popular to grow because they are hardy, fast growing plants that thrive in poor, sandy soil.
“It can stand everything but single digits,” Warren Brothers, a fifth generation farmer and owner of Brothers Farm in La Grange. “It’ll go down in the teens pretty good, depending on where it is and how healthy it is going into it.”
Brothers grows about an acre of organically raised cabbage collards that he sells at local restaurants and farmers markets in Greenville and Kinston, N.C.
“It’s an Eastern North Carolina comfort food, especially at the holidayssaid Brothers. "People just want them on the table."
According to a census report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 415 farms growing a total of 1,094 acres of collards in 2017. When compared to 2012 numbers, the report indicates there was a 45% decrease in the number of acres of collards harvested in North Carolina. However, the number of farms harvesting collards more than doubled from 2012 to 2017. Collard production in North Carolina is hard to track since it’s not a major crop in North Carolina. There’s also no requirements for farmers to register their acreage.
Historically, people relied on collards because they are relatively easy to grow and provide a form of sustenance during cold months.
“The earliest records of collards coming over here as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, they appear in Virginia as early as the 1600s,” said Earl Ijmes, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. “Collard greens are one of the few vegetables or fruits that people from Africa who were enslaved were allowed to grow.”
Ijmes, a seventh generation North Carolinian and a farmer in Johnston County, uses the crops he grows to teach the history of how certain foods because a part of southern cuisine and culture.
“Collards are something that people who were formerly enslaved were encouraged to grow to feed themselves. And then that grew out of feeding an entire plantation and communities,” said Ijmes.
Eventually, colonial settlers and their foodways migrated south into North Carolina. The tradition of consuming collards have changed over the years. Today, most people eat collards during the holiday season or at New Years for good luck. Some people enjoy the greens between two pieces of deep fried cornbread. The methods used to prepare collards, however, have remained mostly unchanged.
“A little country ham, a little fried meat grease, and little bit of side meat and that’s it,” said Jeannie Hardee, a long time Ayden resident and six time collard cooking contest winner at the Ayden Collard Festival.
Like many family traditions, she said her collard recipe and cooking techniques were passed down for generations.
“When my mom was living, my daddy, he raised his own hogs and fixed his own meat and stuff. That’s what she used was straight out of what they call the smokehouse. She could cook better collards than me, I can tell you.”
Easy Southern Collard Recipe
5 lbs. of cabbage collards
14 oz. salt pork
1 ham hock
Salt and pepper to taste
Add water to a large pot. Bring water to a medium boil and add salt pork and ham hock. Simmer for 30-45 min to season the water. Remove stems from collard leaves and wash thoroughly. Add collards to the seasoned water and boil for about 45 min. or until tender. Strain through a colander and press the water out of them. Use a food chopper to chop the collards. Salt and pepper to taste.