When chef Ashleigh Shanti was growing up in Virginia, collards were a table staple. Her mother stewed them in stock for everyday eating, and for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter meals, the greens got special treatment, cooked with seasoning meat like ham hocks or smoked turkey necks.
But because collards were such a common offering, Shanti confesses, she disliked them as a child. And that perspective didn’t change until friends she brought home on weekends from Hampton University, the historically Black college she attended, raved about her mom’s collard dishes. “Seeing other people appreciate them was kind of key in making me appreciate them,” says the former Benne on Eagle chef de cuisine.
Shanti, who departed Benne in November with the goal of building her own Asheville restaurant group, now loves the humble collard and has found many uses for it, particularly during her time at Benne on Eagle, where she celebrated and explored Appalachian, West African and Black American — especially Southern — culinary culture, traditions, ingredients and methods. Shanti will demonstrate a collard salad, incorporating four preparations of the green, as she joins seed savers, farmers and historians Monday-Thursday, Dec. 14-17, to host virtual conversations for the inaugural Collard Week.
Heirloom Collard Project
It was at Benne on Eagle that Shanti met Chris Smith, author of James Beard Foundation Award-winning book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, executive director of the Utopian Seed Project and co-creator of the Heirloom Collard Project and Collard Week. Their first conversation began with okra then expanded to collards and the remarkable number of varieties being chronicled by the Heirloom Collard Project.
“There are very few people who make you want to stop in the midst of a 16-hour day to talk,” she says with a laugh. “But when he told me about Utopian Seed Project and the Collards project, he was so captivating, and I loved everything he said.”
The Heirloom Collard Project was germinated at the 2016 Monticello Harvest Festival, an annual food conference held at Thomas Jefferson’s historic home in Virginia. Ira Wallace, an organic grower, author and worker/owner of the cooperative Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia, had been in discussion for a couple of years with the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s collection of more than 60 rare heirloom varieties of collard seeds from the U.S. Southeast — most of them from North and South Carolina.
Smith joined the conversation during the conference. “We began to talk about how we could get this wonderful diversity of collards appreciated and grown through what we called the Heirloom Collard Project,” he recalls.
Wallace and the Seed Savers Exchange had requested a small quantity of each of the varieties to take to trial, and Wallace began growing them all. “I thought I had seen a lot of collards growing up in Florida and professionally, but nothing like this number and variety,” says Wallace.
Smith designed a website for the project at that time, but after some internal shuffling at Seed Savers Exchange, he says, the effort went dormant until last January, when he ran into Wallace at the Virginia Agricultural Conference and they decided to regenerate the Heirloom Collard Project. Working Food, a Florida nonprofit dedicated to cultivating and sustaining a resilient food community, soon jumped in to collaborate, and Seed Savers Exchange came back on board as well.
Going to trial
The four groups began meeting monthly, establishing eight trial-site farms around the country, each growing the 20 varieties of collards featured in the 2020 collard trial. Smith operates one of the trial sites on a strip of land at Franny’s Farm in Leicester, and Wallace has one at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia.
Additionally, over 200 backyard gardeners nationwide signed up to each grow three randomly distributed collard varieties. Both the farmers and the gardeners feed their results into an app created by SeedLinked software company, which, Smith explains, will “use some fancy math” to collect and process the data to determine the varieties that are the tenderest, most disease-resistant, tastiest and most frost-tolerant, for example.
SeedLinked data and photographs will be presented during Collard Week, which was developed by the Culinary Breeding Network in Portland, Ore. “They got wind of what we were doing with the trials, reached out and told us they were already organizing virtual celebrations of different crops and wanted to do one on collards,” Smith explains. “They have run point on that with the technology and funding and are hosting the event.”
The four-day virtual event will feature daily or twice-daily presentations, kicking off with one by historian and James Beard Foundation Award-winning author Michael Twitty. Wallace, Seed Savers Exchange and SeedLinked will present updates and results from this year’s trials, and the conference will conclude with Shanti’s cooking demo and a Collard Happy Hour.
Smith began harvesting from his 20 varieties in October, and he brought Shanti samples of each. Her favorite — and the one she will use in the collard salad demo — is Tabitha Dykes. “We wanted to demonstrate using the whole plant,” Shanti says. “I’m using the raw, stripped collard leaves as the salad green, a quick-pickle of the stems to add acidity, the dressing is a collard chermoula, and we’ll fry some leaves for a collard chip garnish.”
The happy hour Zoom event, Smith says, will allow conference attendees to meet, virtually mingle and ask questions with 15 collard experts. “We found a gin-based collard cocktail and will provide the recipe for that in advance so everyone can salute the collard with their cocktail,” he adds. “I am a big fan of gin, so I am really looking forward to sampling that.”
For information on the Heirloom Collard Project and Collard Week registration, speakers and schedules, visit heirloomcollards.org.