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Collard Greens: Generations Keeping American Traditions Alive

My young friend, Mikala Powell enjoys cooking. Her Mom makes cupcakes every Friday during football season for her husband's players. Her Dad is a pro at barbecue as is evident in their annual Memorial Day picnic. The Thorntons, her maternal family loves to bake just like her mother. The Powells, her paternal family owns a large farm in Lockhart, South Carolina where they make seasonal wines, jams, jellies, and molasses. And that's just a few of the products they produce.

Mikala has taken over the responsibilities of making the collard greens for her family feasts. She learned from her grandmother, Granny Powell, otherwise known as Mae Oria Lindsay Powell. Check out Mikala's biography in my blog The Children Are Our Future

A few words from my conversation with Mikala:

Some people will say you have to cut them up all fancy, but I just lay the collard leaves flat and slice the stems out and then rip them up into smaller pieces because they wilt. Then I season the short ribs with all the seasonings except the minced garlic, obviously. I brown the short ribs, remove them to rest and then add about half of a sliced onion and let them cook to remove bits from pan. I put ribs back in with onions to cook for a little bit. Then I add the greens and whatever stock you use. Turn the heat to low and I add more of all the seasonings but instead of garlic powder, this time I add a spoonful of minced garlic. Then a few spoonsful of apple cider vinegar and a few splashes of hot sauce. I cover them up and they sit for about 3 hours on low. I stir it here and there but that’s pretty much it. They are so simple and good.

Cooking Class with Carol

Things to Consider

Mikala made the process seem so simple. And really, it is once you do all the prep work.

Although grown year-round, collards’ peak season is the first quarter of the year. Although uniquely tolerant of both cold and hot climates, collards (and kale) actually benefit from frost, which causes them to produce sweeter leaves.

Otherwise, don't let these or any other delicious greens (Kale, Mustards, Broccoli Rabb, Beet Tops, Turnip-Tops escape your menus.


According to greens date back to prehistoric times. They are practically the dinosaurs of edible plants– they’re one of the oldest members of the cabbage family, and in fact are also known as tree cabbage or non-heading cabbage.

Collard greens were just one of a few select vegetables that African-Americans were allowed to grow and harvest for themselves and their families throughout times of enslavement, and so over the years cooked greens developed into a traditional food.

Even after the Africans were emancipated in the late 1800s, their love of greens continued and they kept handing down their well-developed repertoire of greens recipes from one generation to the next.

Greens that have been cooked down into a thin, delicious gravy (known as “pot likker”) is definitely of African origin. The pot likker is quite nutritious and delicious, and contributes to the comfort-food aspect of the dish.

After the American Civil War, destitute white Southerners began eating collard greens and found what African-Americans had known for ten generations: they are delicious, and nutritious! In fact, collard greens are one of the most nutritious of the cool-season vegetables.

Grees are bursting with vitamins and minerals that help prevent and fight disease. Today, many varieties of greens— collards, mustard, turnips, chard, spinach, and kale— continue to be a traditional offering at picnics, potlucks, parties and family dinners.

They are one of the best non-dairy sources of calcium, surpassing an 8-ounce serving of milk. Collards boast a unique trifecta: Anti-inflammatories in the form of omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin K; Antioxidants in the form of beta carotene, Vitamins C and E and manganese; and detoxifiers in the form of glucosinolates, compounds that are being studied for their abilities to ward off cancer as well as cardiovascular disease.

The only reason not to eat your collards is if you’re taking blood thinners or you’ve got pre-existing gallbladder or kidney issues (collards are a considerable source of oxalates). But don't take my advice, refer to your doctor for specific recommendations.

Edna Lewis

As an admired chef and cookbook author, Edna Lewis taught the American public to appreciate southern meals in a new way.

Born in 1916 in Freetown, Virginia and one of eight children, she lived with her family in a small Orange County community of emancipated slaves that her grandfather helped to create.

Growing up in the early 20th century, modern cooking appliances were not accessible to her. However, Lewis inherited the creativity and resourcefulness that was central to African American food preparation. For example, without access to measuring spoons, baking powder was measured on coins to ensure the right amount was used in each dish. As Lewis learned to cook, she treasured the joy and community that was created around food and the many memories that were made.

After her father died, Lewis moved away from home at the age of sixteen. She moved to Washington, D.C. but quickly relocated to New York City and began working as a laundress and soon became a seamstress. She began making dresses for celebrities becoming known for her African-inspired dresses. After marrying her husband Steve Kingston and working many jobs in the area, Lewis’ dream to be a chef became a reality.

Along with her friend John Nicholson, Lewis opened and became the head chef of Café Nicholson in 1949. Located on the East Side of Manhattan, this French-inspired restaurant became a staple for artists and celebrities including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. At this restaurant, she would often prepare her beloved southern dishes for her consumers.

After an illustrious, albeit taxing career in writing cookbooks and running restaurants, Lewis moved to Georgia and retired from restaurants.

She received various awards and honors including:

  • “Who’s Who in American Cooking,” by Cook’s Magazine,

  • honorary Ph.D. in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University in 1996,

  • James Beard Living Legend Award in 1999,

  • “Grande Dame” by Les Dames d'Escoffier International in 1999

In this 1994 interview Edna Lewis touches on "Southern Hospitality" cooking as the only real regional cuisine in the country which was developed by black southern men and women. Many southern cookbooks were published by white authors, none ever crediting the generations of black home cooks that developed the cuisine.

Thankfully Lewis has created many cookbooks to provide the history of this regional cuisine from its rightful originators.

I was privileged to receive her cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking as a birthday present. It's marvelous. It reads like a novel. And it gives such details to understand the development of complex flavors and using ingredients to elevate everyday dishes.

In the above interview, Lewis states she cooks the meat the day before, allows the stock to cool and the fat to congeal at the top. She then skims off most of the fat, reserving it for other recipes, reheats the stock and cooks the greens.

In her greens' preparations section of the book, Lewis touches on varieties used, nutritional values, and preparation. "She uses smoked pork shoulder or side of cured bacon-- middling as it was called", meat was usually boiled until done, then the greens were added to the boiling stock. Well cleaned and rinsed fresh greens, stems removed, were cooked "fast but gently for no more than 15 to 20 minutes. Cook uncovered, which prevents them from turning brown."

(For our recipe, we will sear the meat and cook it in prepared stock. I want to, when time allows, cook the meat and greens according to her instructions. I can only imagine the viscosity and depth of flavor her pork broth offers after cooking for a whole day.)

Thank you, Edna Lewis, for keeping YOUR American heritage, traditions and cuisine alive and sharing with us all.

Collard Greens


•2 lbs. greens, washed, destemmed and cut into pieces

•2-3 lbs. of beef short ribs, or your favorite cured or smoked meat

•1 medium yellow onion, sliced

•1 teaspoon each garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper and red pepper flakes.

•1 tablespoon minced garlic

•1-11/2 quarts chicken or beef broth (pork broth from cooking meat)

•2 tsp. apple cider vinegar

•Tabasco or hot sauce to taste

What to do

1. Cut and clean greens, removing stems since they are hard and tough to consume.

2.Wash greens, soaking them and then removing them from fresh cold water 4-5 times.

3. Grit from sand and dirt can get caught in the leaves, so this is too important a step to skip.

4. Combine garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper, red pepper flakes in a jar. Mix to combine. Add liberally to meat. Allow to come to rest at room temperature, about 15-30 minutes.

5. In a large heavy bottom Dutch Oven pot on medium-high and brought to smoking, sear meat on all sides, locking in juices. Remove from pot, place on sheet pan to rest.

6. Lower heat to medium adding 2 Tablespoons oil to pan.

7. Add onion and stir to bring up all the brown bits on the pan.

8. Add greens and seasonings to the pan, stirring to incorporate with onions.

9. Add meat back into pot.

10. Add stock.

11. Cook until greens are beginning to wilt, usually 30 minutes.

12. Add minced garlic, apple cider vinegar and hot sauce.

13. Continue to simmer on low for 30 minutes to a few hours or until greens are at YOUR desired consistency.

Remember, the "pot likkor" is choked full of goodness and flavor. Make sure you slurp that out of your bowl!


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