Something about Neiman Marcus selling collard greens don’t sit quite right with me. Neiman Marcus feeds your ego; collards feed your soul. Neimans is an escape; collards are home. The mature, common sense part of me says that it is foolish to be concerned about who sells these large, bitter leaves; but I’m feeling a slight stirring of irritation in my gut — ya know?
Those tough greens are panels stitched into my life-quilt.
I felt like a “big girl”, the first time I was invited to sit around the square, laminate kitchen table in my Grandma’s yellow kitchen to help to rip the coarse, thick leaves from their stems. The repetitive motion allowed the toilers’ minds to be slightly hypnotized into a state where laughter and words were unfettered. Shared stories were baskets filled with advice. “Now don’t-chall trust a man who wears a pinky ring. Trust what I tell ya.”
The lessons didn’t stop around that table, but carried to the kitchen sink and stove. Like a young man is taught to tie a proper knot in his tie, a Black girl is taught to make collard greens. “You gotta wash ‘em real good. Don’t want no grit.” “Make sure you cut ‘em in bite size pieces –can’t stand greens so big you almost choke.” Secrets to making the best greens are passed from generation to generation like treasured heirlooms: “Bacon grease—dat’s what makes mine special.” “Put a lil’ vinegar in the liquor right before dey done cookin.”
And nothin’ could make a Southern woman smile more than being told she made the best collard greens in town. That was the Black woman’s medal of honor — causing her to think she deserved that front pew on the right side of the chu’ch. “Humpff… who dey think they ask to make da greens for every repass?”
We can’t talk about collard greens without mentioning “Turkey-gate.” A Black grandma could better deal with you coming home with a tattooed boyfriend who just got out of jail than your talk of switching out hog maw for smoked turkey wings in the collard greens. That talk of being healthier would cause her to shake her head, look at you in disgust and loud talk you in front of the entire family, “Deez chillen got these new-fangled ways. I’m 86 years old, an collard greens wit a lil pork aint killed me yet. She up-in-here brangin some dried up turkey necks talkin’ bout dey jus as good.” For a minute, you’d feel real shame — as if you had indeed lost yourself and shamed your family because at bottom, though you may have traveled and experienced a lot, you were still that same Black, Southern girl who felt special when that same woman taught you just how “ta cook em right.”
As a little, Black, Southern girl, the smell of fat back and ham hocks, simmering in a large pot of water that would waft through the house indicated that a special dinner was being prepared. Perhaps the Reverend was coming over following service or Great grandma Lena, smelling like moth balls and cinnamon candy, was making her way from the “country” to our slightly less country part of town.
Collard greens meant holidays, family, good luck. Even those who don’t like collard greens would quickly shovel a forkful inside their mouths on New Year’s Day, to induce a financially prosperous year. Collard greens ain’t just greens to the Black community. They are our challah bread, our latkes, our Eid ul-Fitr, our Diwali, and our long noodles. They are us.
And now you can order them out of a Neiman Marcus catalog and have them delivered to your front door in a box and a fancy container. I bet not nair a pair of Grandma’s hands touched em. Nobody stuck a fork in, while they cooked on the stove, to see if ‘”dey is ready.” Nobody argued about addin’ just a shake of red crushed pepper.
I guess it’s progress—right? I guess we should all feel a sense of pride that a tough, naturally bitter vegetable that was eaten by us, Black folks, when we were enslaved because it was once undesirable is now being sold in a high-end department store. We can get our Cole Hans and our Collards at the same time; our Gucci and our Greens. We should be proud—right?
I know my Grandmomma would say something similar to, “Dat presdent at that Neiman’s place don’t know whether to check his ass or scratch his watch, his butt so confused. No way no greens should be sold at the same place I can buy me a dress. That ain’t right. Greens ain’t gone ta be right. I know you think you shittin’ in high cotton these days, gal, but you best make your own greens just like I taught cha.
I will Grandma. I will.