Greens in the bank: New Year’s in WNC calls for collards

FOR A RAINY DAY: Eating collard greens on New Year's Day is a Southern tradition. Pickling them is a way to keep the goodness in the pantry throughout the year. Photo by Katherine Brooks

What if you really could ensure a prosperous future by eating plenty of leafy green vegetables? I am beginning to think this concept may have come from common-sense reasoning as opposed to superstition.

The cultural tradition of eating lots of collard greens on New Year’s Day harkens back to a time when gardens in the South overflowed with leafy greens in December. People ate greens every day because they were so abundant and sometimes because there wasn’t much else to eat. Poverty in the South was rampant, especially after the Civil War, but folks could fill their bellies as long as they had a patch of soil.

Southern lore has connected the consumption of collard greens and paper money for a long time. The 2014 Serious Eats article “The True Story of Traditional New Year’s Lucky Foods” highlights the old Southern proverb, “Peas for pennies, greens for dollars and cornbread for gold,” noting the similarity of flat collard leaves to paper currency. Making the connection between eating abundantly and prosperity does not seem like too much of a stretch.

Seed money

Cultures around the world view greens like money in the bank. Neeraj Kebede, owner and chef of downtown’s Addissae Ethiopian Restaurant, grew up eating gomen, a leafy green similar to kale or collards. Gomen grew in every yard. A common Ethiopian phrase, “If I have nothing to eat, at least I’ll have my kale,” points to the prolific nature of the vegetable and to a feeling of abundance despite poverty.

Kebede uses collards at his restaurant, preparing them much as his grandmother did. She would go out to the yard and cut greens as needed, chop them fine and sauté them in a clay pot perched over a fire with caramelized onion, ginger and garlic topped with salt and a bit of fresh cardamom.

Teddy Pitsiokos, co-owner and farmer at Patchwork Urban Farms, can speak to the prolific nature of this amazing set of vegetables. “I like growing greens in wintertime. Using relatively unsophisticated techniques, we are able to keep producing all winter,” he says. “It requires a lot of extra planning, but most models show winter CSA’s being more profitable in general, if you can do it — it definitely depends on your climate.”

Well, the climate in my backyard must be just right, because I manage to grow spinach, kale, collards, arugula and Swiss chard most of the winter, and believe me when I say my techniques are unsophisticated. A little row cover and maybe a hoop house covered in plastic afford me leaves for salads, sautés and stews in the cold-weather months.

Wild things

Many delicious edibles don’t even need to be planted; they grow wild in shady corners and creep through sidewalk cracks. Chickweed and dandelion pop up in unexpected places, covering entire yards if left untamed. Suzy Phillips, owner and chef at Gypsy Queen Cuisine, grew up in Lebanon with civil war raging nearby, collecting wild dandelion and purslane. She learned to cook them sitting on her mother’s hip, smelling, watching and tasting.

“You have to get dandelion greens young and tender, then blanch them in hot water, shock them and sauté with onions, garlic pounded into paste, salt and cilantro — finish with a little lemon juice,” she advises. She recalls gathering wild thyme and purslane in the woods and adding them to the Lebanese bread salad fattoush while picnicking.

But not all their greens were foraged. “We grew a lot of our vegetables,” she remembers. “My mom loved to garden.” She recalls prolific and hardy Swiss chard growing through the winter. “Swiss chard and lentil soup was our daily soup, all the time, with potatoes in winter. In the summer we would it eat cold without potatoes.” She maintains the tradition by serving the same soup at her restaurant daily.

Root to stem

While modern American culture tends to view some parts of plants as inedible, other cultural traditions see those same parts as opportunities to add flavor and texture to a dish. Often that means eating the tops of plants that might be discarded in this country.

“Daikon leaves, turnip leaves, carrot leaves — in Japanese cooking we try to utilize everything,” explains Khan Kogure, owner of the Japanese izakaya pop-up Charinko. “We blanch them, chop them and mix them into rice or a pickle. Shungiku — the Japanese word for chrysanthemum leaves — make a great salad, and this time of year you might make it with sliced persimmons, grated daikon and grilled duck.”

Kogure also points to another prolific leafy plant that is used for flavoring. “We use a lot of shiso. It’s called the ‘king of basil’ and grows really well. It’s kind of weedy, actually, coming back year after year. It’s a great herb. You can use it for sushi and a lot of pickling.”

If you are using wild plants, the “kind of weedy” plants, and the plants that grow well even in the coldest part of the year, you must understand the value of being thrifty. In my mind, abundance and thrift naturally equal prosperity. If prosperity is what you’re after, looking at these cultural traditions clarifies the reasoning behind eating lots of greens on the first day of the year.

I don’t actually need any more reasons to eat lots of greens. I love them in their abundant diversity, and eat them every day of the year, regardless of my income level. However, if you are interested in being thrifty, collard greens do get marked down in most markets around the second day of January. Buy as many as you can and pickle them to enjoy all year long.

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About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

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