Collards at Tara

Like most psychotics fiction writers  are more involved with the turmoil of the human condition (usually theirs) than soups and sandwiches (like the rest of us), but you’re going to find food mentioned in many novels. It is, after all, an essential element of existence itself.

Margaret Mitchell was born to an upper-class home in Atlanta at the turn of the last century, and her family roots sank deep in antebellum Georgia. Given the social dynamics of her upbringing, she was certainly well-informed when it came to that period’s Southern table, so we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find a notable description of an antebellum spread in Gone with the Wind.

When Ashley came home from the war for Christmas, the table was still graced with Aunt Pittypat’s linen and china, but about the only thing to eat were sweet potatoes and a skinny rooster Uncle Peter caught, and Scarlett remembered Tara’s groaning boards:

There were apples, Yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare. A the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air.

How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.

While most of the dishes seem apt for a wealthy, socially prominent Georgia plantation meal in the 1830’s, some people (admittedly me among them) might find the presence of collards in what doubtless must have been a porcelain tureen jarring because I’m such a stuck-up redneck, but stewed collards fit on the table in any damn thing that will hold them. I’ll be the first one to say turnips are good, too, but not raw with red mud on them, for chrissakes.

To cook, pick through greens, discarding the tough stems and ribs, wash very well and place in a deep stew pot with only enough liquid to cover a third of the leaves. Collards, like most greens, cook down considerably and as they do make what is called a “pot likker”, which is a somewhat legendary element of Southern cuisine. Most people include a meat to season, usually pork in the form of ham bones or a thick rind bacon, but today’s more health-conscious cooks will use a smoked turkey neck or tail, and some simply cook the greens in a vegetable broth. Use a minimum of salt before cooking, perhaps a teaspoon to help leach out the liquids from the leaves, and adjust before bringing to the table.

Pepper vinegar is the traditional seasoning in the mid-South, but a red pepper (e.g. Crystal or Tabasco-type) sauce is more often used near the Gulf. Here in Jackson, we use what we like.


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