Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Southern Thanksgiving

The Secret to Perfect Collards

I have always been a big city girl, and when my brother and I were growing up in Coconut Grove (a suburb--now--of Miami) my mother was back in school after running a successful and exclusive high-fashion clothing store for many years. Her alteration department had eight women working in it full time; Cuban women, and boy could they sew. And lined all the seams and hems with lace...the whole nine yards.

And my mother was the best. She could design, cut a pattern and whip up a little something with bound button-holes in the twinkling of an eye. In order to take a job teaching mens' tailoring at the high-rise technical school in Downtown Miami, she had to get a Master's in Home Ec. I guess that's what they called it, anyway. In her case they waived almost all of the course requirements due to her vast experience.

My mother was also one of those people who was also an excellent public speaker, and on one particular occasion she was giving a presentation at a seminar of some sort having to with her classes or degree, and brought the house down by sharing with the audience the easiest way to wash spinach, which in those days was invariably covered with mud if not worse.

She told them to remove the leaves from the bundle and rinse then spin them for a few minutes in the washing machine. After howling with laughter, a lot of people didn't believe her until they had tried it, but I have washed spinach that way my whole life. No muss, no fuss. Proceed directly to stem-removal.

A few years ago I made a move to the Very-Deep South. I had many cultural shocks in store. Stories, maybe for another day.

This Thanksgiving, my daughter was here visiting from Boston, and she and I were invited to a neighbor's for dinner. After discussing it, we decided to call and tell her to choose whatever dish she least wanted to fix, and we would make it. She confessed to a craving for collards, but just really didn't think she would have the time to mess with them. 

Me and my big mouth. I had very little idea what a collard looked like, much less how they are prepared or what they are supposed to taste like. To me they had always been something nasty that came in a little side-dish in Southern restaurants that could be made semi-palatable by drowning them in Pepper Sauce--another term many of you non-Southerners might not be familiar with. I demurred, she insisted I could cook anything. Guess who won? 

The next day, after reading the instructions on a soul-food recipe site, I set out to acquire the requisite five bunches of collards, ham hocks, and the stuff (I'm still not sure what it was, and not sure I wanted to know) that the gentleman in the meat department assured me I had to include for the "soul" to be fully present. I cleverly slid them (it?) under a package of something else when he wasn't looking. I thought of the lunch lady in Beauty Shop.

Now five bunches of collards is somewhat more that a bushel, I think, so my daughter and I decided to use the old tried-and-true family method of washing spinach. There was just one little problem. We couldn't get the washing machine to stop. While I was tearing my hair out and we were both envisioning days of scooping collard mush out of the washer, followed by an almost certainly expensive visit from a repairman, we finally manage to halt the beast after spinning out the water, and took a cautious peek. Oh yeah, about what I had envisioned.

We started scooping. A faint ray of hope began to break through the despair. The collards had turned themselves into 2-3 inch pieces, and the thrashing had removed the stems. Ye gods and little fishes. I had gone my Who's Who of Commerce and Industry mother one better. Washing, drying and de-stemming all in one easy 10 minute step. The only thing we had to do, was pick the huge chunks of stem out of each handful.

Which I cooked, according to recipe, minus that one little bit of "soul," and everybody raved about them. Were they being polite or did they taste like they were supposed to? I haven't got a clue. I won't believe I know what a collard is supposed to taste like until I've had some prepared by an acknowledged Southern born and raised collard expert.

Each photo is a link back to the blog or website where it was found.


No comments:

Post a Comment

I would enjoy reading your comments.