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Collards--the Sweetheart of Soul Food

Collards at a Glance
History Uses Name Origin Folklore/Oddities Medical Benefits
Growing Nutrition Purchasing Preparation Recipe

A typical soul food meal just isn't satisfying without its "mess o' greens." That means collards, of course. And they're as unpretentious as the Southern folks who created soul food cuisine. Matter of fact, the heartbeat of soul food centered on pork first, and collards second, along with turnip greens or mustard greens.

When the African slaves were brought from their African homeland to the South to work on the plantations, they learned to make wholesome meals from the poorest ingredients, discarded scraps, and whatever foods they could grow for themselves. Since collards, along with the whole family of greens, grew profusely in the South, they became a popular item at many meals.

The collards, or other greens, were seasoned with scraps such as pig's feet, ham hocks, brains, testicles (mountain oysters), and intestines better known as chitterlings or chittlins. Plantation owners would not eat these discards, but these foods, thrown together in a large iron pot, became important staples to the black slaves. Though these plantation workers had only a few vegetables and a limited number of rejected meat scraps to work with, they developed a knack for making them taste good. As travelers arrived in the South from Europe and other parts of North America, they introduced new food items such as corn, rice, squash, and tomatoes. These, too, were incorporated into the greens and beans pot. Thus, a unique Southern cuisine was born.

The black slaves who worked in the plantation kitchens in the South contributed important nutritional balance to the simple Southern diet by serving collard greens at the masters' tables.

Botanists say that the collard plant, has remained almost the same for about 2000 years and is actually a type of kale. Both collards and kale are actually loose-leaf non-heading wild cabbages that are the predecessors of head cabbage. The major differences between collards and kale are the leaf shape, length of the stem, color, and flavor. While collards have a medium green color, smooth texture, and an oval shape, kale has dark grayish green broad leaves with a crinkled texture. On the flavor scale, collards are several degrees milder than kale, a strong, bitter vegetable. Collards

Historians are unsure of the exact origin of wild cabbage. They surmise that it was growing wild in Asia Minor, now Turkey, as well as in Greece along the Mediterranean long before recorded history. Confucius mentions some varieties of the cabbage family as early as 497 BCE, indicating the Chinese were familiar with the greens. The Asian varieties include pe-tsai that we know as Napa cabbage, Chinese broccoli, and bok choy.

Though the ancient Greeks cultivated the wild cabbages and developed several varieties, they did not relish them. Initially, only the stems of the wild cabbages were eaten, a practice that extended to broccoli as well. However, the Romans were quite fond of collards and cultivated about 400 cabbage varieties including heading cabbages, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and kale.

Wending their way northward and westward around the first century CE, collards turned up in Germany, France, and Great Britain via travels of the Romans or possibly the Saxons.

Throughout history not too many cultures were enamored of the cabbage family. True, the greens provided sustenance during the winter when no other vegetables were able to grow, but they developed the reputation for being unsophisticated and odoriferous. The greens produced two bad odors: one while cooking in the kitchen, the other in the flatulence induced in the eaters. These negative views were not only held by the ancient Greeks, but by the general population all throughout the European continent.

Some historians say it was the Romans who brought the collard family into Europe, while dissenters claim it was the Celts who may have taken a fancy to the greens and brought them into the British Isles. Although the Celts met the Romans in battle about 100 BCE, they did not bring the greens into the British Isles until a much later date.

In 1565 explorers discovered cultivated collards growing in Hispanola, an island in the West Indies that lies between Cuba and Puerto Rico. When the first African slave ship arrived in Virginia in 1619, collards were thriving prolifically in the southern climate. British colonists also brought the seeds of many vegetables, including collards, when they began to settle in the South in the mid to late1600's.

The Virginia Truck Experiment Station has conducted collard and kale research from 1909 through the 1960's. The acronym "Vates" has become attached to many varieties developed at the research station. Champion along with Flash and Heavi-Crop are two of their collard varieties.

Today, collards are commercially grown in Southern United States where they remain a highly regarded vegetable and an essential part of Southern cuisine. They are also cultivated in Southeast Asia, the West Indies, South America, and the African continent.

Folklore and More
A true Southerner knows he can look forward to a year of good fortune if he eats collards, black-eyed peas, and hog jowl on New Year's Day.

Southerners believed that a fresh collard leaf hung over the door assured that evil spirits would not enter. And we always thought garlic was the magic deterrent. Some believed they could chase a headache away by placing a fresh collard leaf on the forehead.

Princess Pamela, a soul-food cook, shared this wisdom with customers at her restaurant:

"Somebody said something 'bout God musta liked the common people 'cause he made so many of them. I think that the common things is the most important 'cause yuh get to use them all of the time. So it's important to learn to do them the best. Like cookin' a pan of great corn bread, collard greens, ribs and chicken, and sweet potato pie."

Medicinal Benefits
Medical researchers believe that the whole family of cruciferous vegetables helps to prevent cancer. The cruciferous family includes collards, kale, cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mustard and mustard greens, turnips and their greens, arugula, watercress, kohlrabi, horseradish, and rutabaga. Studies have shown that eating foods in this vegetable family speeds the liver's ability to detoxify ingested toxins.

Julius Caesar ate a hearty serving of collards as a preventive to indigestion after attending royal banquets, a testimony to their detoxifying abilities.

Eppley Cancer Institute at the University of Nebraska conducted a study to learn the effectiveness of collards as a cancer preventive. After feeding mice cabbage or collard greens, researchers injected breast cancer cells into the rodents and found they developed fewer metastasized cancers. Other experiments revealed that collards exhibited surprising anti-cancer agents that prevented the genetic changes promoting cancer growth.

Collard Cuisine
Think of Southern cooking and you picture a pot of collard greens steaming on the stovetop. Greens are not only limited to collards, though they are dominant in Southern kitchens. Kale, spinach, mustard greens, and turnip greens have almost as prominent a place as collards.

A "mess o' greens," a southern expression, refers to the quantity of greens it takes to feed a family.

Down home cooking in Portugal features Caldo Verde, a potato soup made with shredded greens like collards, kale, or chard, along with onions, and garlic. Considered a national dish, this "green soup" is served almost daily.

Cooking collard greens in the traditional Southern style involves simmering them slowly with a ham hock or salt pork, which is said to temper their pungent flavor and make them pleasantly soft.

CollardsThe flavorful collard cooking liquid left in the pot is known in the South as "pot likker." A quintessential practice revolving around serving collards in the South includes serving corn bread along with the greens to mop up the tasty "pot likker."

Though pickled cabbage is associated with European countries, some historians write that the technique of pickling vegetables, particularly the greens, to preserve them came from China. Who knows, maybe sauerkraut originated in China and was brought to Europe by the Tartars!

A favorite spicy Ethiopian side dish, Ayib Be Gomen, consists of chopped collards cooked with cottage cheese, lots of black pepper, butter and salt. Another Ethiopian collard dish, Ye'abesha Gomen, involves steaming them in olive oil, red onions, garlic, green peppers, and spices.

Well known opera singer, Leontyne Price, who comes from Laurel, Mississippi, is quoted telling one of her friends precisely how to prepare collards:

"This is how we do it in Laurel, Mississippi. You have to examine each leaf personally, after you've washed it. You must take the yellow part out, and you must tear every bit of green leaf off the stalk, in pieces as big as postage stamps. It takes time, but this is how you have to do it. There are as many different ways to cook greens as there are to sing soprano roles."

At Princess Pamela's Little Kitchen, a Manhattan soul-food restaurant of a past era, one of the menu choices was a Vegetable Plate. The description listed greens first, followed by rice, yams, salad, and corn bread. While Popeye had spinach, the South had greens, all kinds of greens, with collards as top choice.

Naming Collards
Because collards are part of the cabbage family, their name has evolved from the Anglo-Saxon coleworts or colewyrts and translates as "cabbage plants."

Collards and kale, called non-heading cabbages, are close cousins of the cabbage and belong to the family of Brassica oleracea var acephala that means "cabbage without a head." They are also relatives of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

A fully mature collard plant resembles a rosette comprised of numerous, long, loosely arranged oval-shaped leaves that are perched on top of a raised, thick stem. While the leaves are a rich, deep green color, the stems and midribs that support them are starkly white.

Two main varieties are Vates and Georgia. The Vates varieties are more resistant to bolting and insect damage in the winter months. Vates varieties can be recognized by their wavy leaves. The Georgia variety has smooth leaves and white stems.

The appeal of growing collards is that they flourish in almost any climate. They are frost tolerant but thrive in warm weather as well as cooler northern climates. Both collards and kale can survive in temperatures as low as 5 to 10 degrees F (-15 to -12 degrees C); however; kale does better in the cold weather, while collards tolerate the heat best. Hot dry weather, however, negatively affects the flavor of collards, making them bitter.

Plant collard seeds in early spring to harvest during the summer. Midsummer plantings produce the best yield and can be harvested in the fall and early winter. Collards are biennial and will send up a flower stalk in its second season. The plants reach maturity in about 60 to 80 days.

To grow collards in a home garden, purchase seeds from seed catalogs or garden shops. An excellent choice in catalogs is the Seed Savers Exchange that offers 41 varieties of kale and 10 kinds of collards, all heirloom varieties.

Prepare the soil with plenty of organic matter and good drainage. Collards are fussy about the pH balance of the soil and prefer levels about 5.5 to 6.5. Water well and frequently, keeping the soil most for best growth and take-up of nutrients. Seeds should be sown 1/4 to 1/2-inch deep (.5 to 5 cm). Since the plants become quite large, it is best to allow 18 inches (46 cm) between them.

Harvesting collards can be done all throughout the growing season. When the plants reach 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) in height, harvest the largest leaves, leaving the smaller ones to continue maturing. To ensure the plant continues producing leaves, harvest only a few leaves at a time, leaving three-fourths of the plant intact.

Some people believe collards taste sweeter when harvested in the cool weather. Doug Sanders, a horticulturist, has an explanation. He says, "Cool weather changes starches in the leaves to sugars, and also changes the structure of protein flavor compounds."

Collards, like cabbages, are prone to aphids, cabbage loopers, and cabbage worms. Cabbage worms and loopers actually eat holes in the collard leaves as well as the cabbage heads. Loopers are the larva stage of the small white moths that frequently appear in the garden. Collards planted in the fall are subject to more worm infestation than the spring plantings. Many farmers find that row covers are helpful in keeping the pests away and allow the plants to grow later into the cold weather.

Collards are a dieter's delight with their low calorie, low fat, and low sodium content. Across the nutrition scale, cooked collard greens offer more vitamins and minerals than raw. Though raw collards are still considered nutritious, cooking them breaks down their cell walls and releases higher levels of vitamins and minerals. When comparing the nutritional data of both cooked and raw collards, note that a cup of cooked collards is more compact than a cup of the raw leaves. The more dense quantity of cooked collards also contributes to higher levels of nutrients.

According to the USDA National Nutrient Data Base for Daily Reference, one cup of freshly cooked collards contains 49 calories; raw they contain 11 calories. The protein content of one cup of cooked collards offers 4 grams, while the raw provides slightly less than 1 gram.

Fiber in cooked collards lists 5 grams and only 1 gram for raw. The fat content, while extremely low, is 0.7 grams for cooked and 0.2 for raw. Vitamin C is higher in cooked collards with 34.6 mg over the raw with 12.7 mg.

The vitamin A content of collards is impressive in both the cooked and raw states, with cooked providing 15417 IU and raw containing 2400 IU. Again, in their cooked state collards are higher in the B vitamins than the raw. Folic acid content for that same one cup of cooked collards provides 177 mcg, while the raw offers 60 mcg.

In mineral content cooked collards shine brighter than raw. Calcium jumps well ahead in cooked collards with 266 mg over the raw that contains only 52 mg. While the cooked greens provide 2.2 mg of iron in one cup, the raw provides only 0.07 mg.

Cooked collards burst ahead of raw with 220 mg of potassium over the raw that contains 61 mg. Even the trace mineral zinc comes out ahead in the cooked with 0.44 mg over the raw with less than 0.05 mg.

The antioxidants in both cooked and raw collards make them a highly nutritious choice to include frequently in the diet. Lutein and zeaxanthin in the cooked collards score a high 14619 mcg, while the raw reaches 3216 mcg. Beta carotene levels for the cooked collards add up to 9147 mcg, with the raw scoring at 1383 mcg. The disparities are considerable, yet both deliver impressive healthful qualities.

Purchasing and Storing
Collards are available in the supermarket throughout the year. Look for four to eight-leaf bunches that are deep green in color and plump. Those that have turned yellow or look shriveled, wilted, and brown around the edges are no longer fresh and have, no doubt, lost much of their nutritive value. Purchase about a pound of fresh collards for 2 or 3 servings.

Like storing spinach, put greens in a plastic bag in the refrigerator where they will keep for several days at 32 degrees F. ( 0 degrees C). Stored at 40 degrees F ( 5 degrees C), collards will deteriorate more rapidly. When they begin to turn yellow, cut away those portions and use the rest quickly. Yellow collards have lost so much of their food value they have little to offer.

Wash them thoroughly to remove any sandy bits clinging to the leaves. Collards can be coarsely chopped, shredded, or enjoyed whole. Prepare them any way you might prepare other greens like spinach, either raw or cooked.

Winter harvested collards are delicately sweet and offer delightful flavor to a salad. The ribs, too, are sweet and crunchy. Be sure to include them along with the leaves. Chop collards into bite size pieces and combine them with romaine and loose leaf lettuces for a salad that offers plenty of nutrition. Collards

Though the tough stems are frequently discarded when preparing collards for cooking, raw food enthusiasts and health conscious cooks appreciate the sweetness and crunchiness of collard stems and incorporate them into salads without hesitation.

Employ collard leaves as a wrap for raw pates or salads that combine finely diced vegetables and sprouts.

Make a chopped collard salad with fresh corn cut off the cob, chopped tomatoes, chopped sweet onions, raw pistachios, and salt-cured olives.

Include collards in green raw soup along with celery, cucumber, and scallions. Include apple and season with lemon or lime juice, sea salt and pepper.

Lengthy cooking in the soul-food style is a sure way to destroy the vitamin C content of this highly nutritious vegetable. Simply cooked greens are easy. Coarsely chop collards, put them into a saucepan with enough water to cover the bottom of the pot. Cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn heat down and steam about 5 to 7 minutes. Season to taste.

For the enhanced version of steamed collards, coarsely chop a bunch of collards, put them into a saucepan along with chopped onions, chopped garlic, a little water, and the juice of 1/2 a lemon. Bring to a boil over high heat and immediately turn heat down to low. Steam about 5 to 7 minutes or until collards are tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper and enjoy one of the healthiest vegetables in the family of greens.

A Mediterranean style collard dish begins by sautéing onions and tomatoes in olive oil. Add chopped collards, salt, pepper, and marjoram, and simmer gently about 15 or 20 minutes.

Chopped or diced collards make a tasty and nutritious addition to soups and stews.

Coarsely chopped steamed collards can be added to a cream sauce made from soy milk and thickened with cornstarch or arrowroot. Add your favorite seasonings and serve over baked or mashed potatoes or cooked grains.

Stir-fry chopped collards in a little extra virgin olive oil along with garlic and onions until tender. Season to taste.


1 large bunch collards
1 C. (240 ml) water (approximately)

1 C. (240 ml) soymilk
1/4 t. salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 1/2 T. nutritional yeast
1 T. lemon juice

1 T. cornstarch
1 T. water

  1. Wash collards thoroughly. Chop off stems and discard or use them in a salad. Remove the tough portion of vein and discard. Chop collards coarsely and put them into a 4-quart (4 liter) saucepan.
  2. Add about 1 C. (240 ml) water, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn heat down and steam about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove cover, and set aside.
  3. While collards are steaming, combine soymilk, salt, pepper, nutritional yeast, and lemon juice in a 2-quart (2 liter) saucepan. With heat on medium-high, bring to a boil, uncovered. Watch carefully to prevent boil-over.
  4. Combine cornstarch and water in a cup, and stir into a thin paste. Using a wire whip, add to bubbling soy milk mixture, stirring until thickened into a smooth, creamy sauce, about 1 minute. Adjust seasoning if needed.
  5. Drain collards and add to cream sauce. Serve warm. Makes 2 to 3 servings.

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