Southerners love their greens. A time-honored tradition in southern kitchens, greens have held an important place on the table for well over a century, and there is no other vegetable that is quite so unique to the region. Greens are any sort of cabbage in which the green leaves do not form a compact head. They are mostly kale, collards, turnip, spinach, and mustard greens. Collard greens are vegetables that are members of the cabbage family, but are also close relatives to kale. Although they are available year-round, they are at their best from January through April.
In the Southern states, a large quantity of greens to serve a family is commonly referred to as a “mess o’ greens.” The exact quantity that constitutes a “mess” varies with the size of the family.
The traditional way to cook greens is to boil or simmer slowly with a piece of salt pork or ham hock for a long time (this tempers their tough texture and smoothes out their bitter flavor) until they are very soft. Typically, greens are served with freshly baked corn bread to dip into the pot-likker.
Pot likker is the highly concentrated, vitamin-filled broth that results from the long boil of the greens. It is, in other words, the “liquor” left in the pot.It is said by southern grandmothers that “Pot likker will cure what ails you and if nothing ailing you, it will give you a good cleaning out.”
In spite of what some consider their unpleasant smell, reaction to the smell of cooking greens separates true southern eaters from wannabes.
According to folklore, collards served with black-eyed peas and hog jowl on New Year’s Day promises a year of good luck and financial reward, hanging a fresh leaf over your door will ward off evil spirits, and a fresh leaf placed on the forehead promises to cure a headache.