My father’s parents are from Jamaica so the African-American roots in my family are from the islands, not from the South. My grandmother’s grandfather was the Busha, a black freeman who was the slave overseer on a plantation. Not something you want in your ancestral past, but I guess he had to do what he had to do in those days.
My great-grandmother was a wander and her husband was a merchant seaman. She constantly traveled with her family, setting up food businesses wherever she went. She brought her kids to America and that meant New York City. The family originally tried to enter the country via New Orleans, but the immigration authorities rejected my grandmother because she had flat feet.
The family settled in Harlem and my seventeen year old grandmother wound up raising her sister after my great grandmother passed away. Even though my great grandmother was an amazing cook herself, she never taught my grandmother to cook. As it turned out, my grandmother rocked the pots too—it’s hereditary. She was self taught and cooked food from all over the world. Her recipe for Collard Greens was from the south. I believe that she learned to cook them from someone she met growing up in Harlem because it’s not a traditional dish from Jamaica.
When my Grandma got old she stop cooking Collard Greens her traditional way. WHAT?!?!?!? Back then there was lots of talk about the evils of pork fat and she was attempting to make them healthier by cooking them with canned beef broth instead of ham hocks and smoked neck bones. This is also when I found out that she liked to put Accent flavor enhancer in her dishes. WTH Grandma?!?!?!?
She would eat them and smack her lips, claiming you couldn’t tell the difference, but I could tell… I never argued with her about it. I realized as I watched her age, that her taste buds changed. She get this cheeky look in her eye and tell me that she’d eaten something that would make my skin crawl or my eyes roll and how good it was. I’d look at this woman who taught me so much about cooking and loving food with gratitude and smile. I’d think to myself, when you reach your nineties you get to eat whatever makes you happy.
I always cook my greens the way she originally did. Granted we don’t eat pork fat laden greens every day. The recipe is not so much labor-intensive as long cooking, so they’ve become a special occasion only dish. I aways make them for my brothers Christmas Eve birthday dinner along with barbecued chicken, macaroni and cheese, potato salad. It’s like having a summer meal in the dead of winter, but it’s all about making his favorite dishes.
We’ve always called them Collard Greens even though they might have turnip greens or mustard greens mixed in with them. I called them Pot Likker Greens when I taught American Cooking From The South at TAFE college in Melbourne, Australia. That’s the name I called them when I served them in my show “The Fried Chicken Theory According to Jackie Gordon: an evening of sultry soul food and sweet soul music.” In the show, I tell the story of how the combination of ingredients cooks down and a broth forms that is known as the liquor and how the dish is so good you’ll want to lick the pot clean.
- 6 pounds of collard with some turnip or mustard greens mixed in, washed. Leave wet.
- 1/2 pound of fatty bacon, diced
- 10 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 pound smoked ham hocks or neck bones
- 1 pound of rutabagas, peeled and cubed
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Hot sauce (optional)
- Prepare the greens by stripping the leaves off the stems. Slice the leaves into 1/4” strips and julienne the stems, diagonally very finely.
- In a small saucepan, cover the ham hocks or neck bones with water and bring them to a boil. Drain off the water.
- In a large heavy bottomed stock pot,over a medium low flame, render the bacon until is crispy.
- Remove the bacon bits from the pan, leave the fat and add olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and sauté until just golden.
- Add the ham hocks or neck bones, the bacon bits and as many greens as will fit in the pot. Put on the lid. Allow the greens to steam for 10 minutes, open the pot, stir them, add more greens, continuing until you fit all the greens in the pot. Season with salt and pepper.
- At this point, you can continue to cook the greens on the stove, but I like to transfer them to a large baking pan. I cover them with aluminum foil and cook them in a 300° oven, so I don’t have to watch them carefully.
- If you leave them in the pot, lower the flame.
- Cook the greens for an hour and a half until they are tender. Adjust seasoning. Add a dash of hot sauce (or serve it on the side). Cool completely.
I find that the greens taste better the next day after the flavors have a chance to meld. We call them Collard Greens even if we mix in turnip or mustard greens. You can also use kale, Swiss chard, cabbage, beet greens, and so forth.