West Virginia is a weird place.
Anyplace that is known for moonshiners and Mothman is bound to be seen as a tad bit odd. But I am not talking about hillbillies and banjos here. Well, not directly, anyway.
I am talking about food and culture.
I can hear it now–you are laughing and saying, “West Virginia has culture?”
Well, sure it does–anyplace that has people in it has culture. I grew up in West Virginia, so I reckon I should know something about the culture in West Virginia, or at least enough that I can talk about it in an articulate fashion.
The reason that I said that West Virginia is a weird place has nothing to do with Mothman, and everything to do with history and food.
See, it is like this: technically speaking, West Virginia is considered a “northern” state, because during the Civil War, the northwestern portion of Virginia decided to stick with the Union, while the southeastern part seceded. Which is why West Virginia is a state. Which it is. I just wanted to make that clear, because I have noticed that a lot of folks from other parts of the country don’t get that. They seem to think that when we expatriate children of the rolling hills and red clay soil say “I am from West Virginia,” that we mean that we are from the western part of Virginia. They always ask, “How do you like Virginia Beach?”
My answer is always, “I dunno, everyone in West Virginia goes either to the Outer Banks or Myrtle Beach.”(If you are laughing while you read this, you are probably from West Virginia.)
Which confuses them. But that doesn’t confront me none; my point is this–West Virginia is a state, not of mind, but a physical place that has been a State in the Union for well over one hundred years now. Got it? Good.
Now, as I was saying, West Virginia is technically considered a “northern” state, but when you sit down to eat there, the food you are tucking into and tasting tells you that you are in the south. And if you listen to the accent in folks’ speech as they say grace, you might notice that it sounds a might bit southern.
What is going on here?
Well, as I have been saying for a while, West Virginia is historically northern, but culturally southern, which essentially makes it a no-man’s land that is betwixt and between political, cultural and philosophical borders. The Yankees are a mystery to us, and the Rebs won’t claim us because we stuck with the bluecoats over a hundred years ago, so I guess that the mountaineers stand alone in the cultural map of the United States.
Or do we?
I don’t think so.
I think that the answer is that we are neither north or south, but Appalachian, and our food, music and other cultural trappings all point to this truth.
Let me explain, by way of examining a phenomena that I noticed a while back. That being the phenomina of how greens are cooked and eaten by both black and white folks in the south, the north, and Appalachia.
Greens are a big thing in the culinary world these days. The most recent US dietary guidelines are trying to get everyone to eat more of these nutrient-dense leafy vegetables, along with lots of other fruits and vegetables. The green leafies are even finding their way onto the menus of upscale restaurants, usually cooked either as an Italian-inspired sauté with garlic and olive oil, or in a kind of neo-Asian stir-fry with lots of ginger, garlic and chile peppers.
Which is fine and great by me–I love the things, and will eat them so long as they taste good, in just about any way a human can figure out how to cook them. But those “newfangled” cooking methods are not related to how I grew up eating them, and how I once believed everyone ate them.
In West Virginia, quite a lot of folks eat greens of some sort, whether it is kale, collards, turnip greens, beet greens or creasy greens. Black or white, it doesn’t matter, you likely eat greens of some kind. City folk and farmers alike eat them, and I am told that rich or poor does not matter, though I have to admit that the only folks I personally knew of growing up who ate them tended to be middle class and on down the socio-economic ladder. This could just point to the fact that I grew up without knowing many rich folks, or it could just be that greens were a preferred food for poor folks. I don’t know the answer to that question, and besides it isn’t overly pertinent to the points I am trying to make.
The pertinent and interesting thing is, that unless we were from a different ethnic background, such as Italian, where the garlic and olive oil came in, we all tended to eat our chosen leaves cooked one way–with smoked pork of some sort included. Some people used a hambone, others a hamhock, and some used belly or jowl bacon. What kind of smoked pig didn’t matter, what mattered was that the greens were simmered with it for a good long time so that the smoky flavor of the pork melded with the bittersweet flavors of the leaves and the whole thing became permeated with a delicious richness that one simply could not resist.
Of course there are variations depending on who is doing the cooking and eating; some people added hot sauce or peppers, and others did not, and some used onions, while others eschewed any other additional ingredients as being unnecessary to the point of sacrilege. One thing is pretty well constant and clear in my recollection of how things were done in the kitchen “back in the day.”
And that is the idea that greens and pig go together in the pot.
Why does all of this matter, one might ask, and why would it set my mind to ruminating?
Well, it all started a month or so ago, when I went to cook dinner for the women at a local domestic violence shelter. I volunteer there, and cook dinner once a week, using my culinary skills to give the women and kids there something to look forward to. I take requests, do the shopping, and come out once a week or so to cook. While I’m there some of the women or kids come in to talk with me, or to help, or just to watch me cook, and I find that often I become a sympathetic ear for their woes or a shoulder for their tears. I also become a bit of entertainment, a source of funny stories and laughter.
And, I stand as a testament to the fact that there is a future beyond the cycle of pain and humiliation that domestic violence brings to people’s lives. In my own quiet way, I tell the folks there that that survival can become something beyond a day by day thing, and that growth and strength come from taking the hard road of stepping out of that cycle and into a new life, and working to make it happen.
Anyway, I had gotten a request from the only African American woman there to make collard greens.
So, I brought my pressure cooker and about fifteen pounds of greens, along with a pound of bacon, some onions, garlic and jalapenos, some chicken broth and set myself up to fix about four batches of greens as a side dish. I had to do them in batches to cook enough greens for everyone; luckily, they only take about five minutes to cook in a pressure cooker.
While I was washing the greens, an older white woman came in, and was so excited to see the collards, she hugged me. Her accent told me she was a southerner, and I laughed. “I ain’t had greens in so long,” she said. “I grew up eatin’ collards all winter long. Ain’t nothin’ better,” she added.
It turns out she grew up a sharecropper’s child in the hills of Arkansas. We traded Appalachian farm girl stories, and she helped me clean the greens.
Another white woman came in, and got equally excited. She was from southeastern Ohio, and she had grown up eating greens with bacon, too. Ohio is most undeniably a northern state, but here was a white woman who grew up there eating greens cooked “right and proper” as my Gram would say.
This started me thinking.
Then the woman who had asked for greens came in as the bacon was cooking with the chiles, onions, and garlic. She grew up in Pennsylvania, in the city if Pittsburgh, which is certainly not the south, nor is it overly Appalachian, though I would argue that there is a significant population of Appalachian folks there who came out of the hills and hollers, looking for work in the steel mills.
But I wasn’t surprised by her insistence that greens be cooked with pig. I had already figured out that African-Americans carried their southern ways of cooking with them when they went up north and out west. Again, there are variations, but a lot of black cooks, even after generations in the north, still cook essentially southern food. Soul food and the food that white southerners, particularly poor white southerners, eat is pretty much the same thing.
Years earlier, I had surprised a black friend of mine who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, by knowing how to cook greens. She was shocked that a white girl knew a thing about greens, because where she grew up, greens were soul food that white folks would not touch. I pointed out that I was a southerner when it came to cooking and eating, and that white folks in the south eat “soul food,” too.
When I served dinner that night, two other white women came in and started sniffing the pot of greens that I was dishing up alongside the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy. One was from Newark, which is a small city on the edge of Appalachian Ohio, and she started licking her lips over the greens, and heaped a bunch of them on her plate. The other was from Columbus, Ohio, which is the capital city and is situated in the central part of the state far from the Appalachian foothills. Columbus is where the Great Plains begin, and all of the land from there north and west is flat from being scraped level by the glaciers of the last ice age.
She stuck her nose over the pot, wrinkled it and said, “What is -that-?”
I said, “Collard greens.”
She backed up and made a face. “Aren’t they black people food?”
I felt my shoulders stiffen, and I looked over at the woman who had requested the greens. She just rolled her eyes and shook her head. Casual racism obviously bothered her, but she, as the only black woman in the shelter, wasn’t going to say anything about it.
I, however, didn’t have to live there.
I plastered a smile on my face and said, “Where I come from, they are poor people’s food. Everybody eats them, from the middle class on down, whether we are white or black. We eat them, and love them, because not only are they really healthy for you, they taste really good.”
At which point the sharecropper’s daughter took up the conversation and began singing the praises of greens. The woman who was of Italian descent took up the thread and started telling how her grandma cooked them like rapini, with lots of garlic and olive oil. The tense moment was gone in a flood of food and reminiscence.
I was gratified that the woman from Columbus did eat them, and in fact liked them, but her words made me think and wonder about why it was that some white women in Ohio knew what greens were and how to cook them, while others evinced the belief that only black folks ate them and knew nothing about the eating and cooking of them. It wasn’t even that they cooked them without pork products–they didn’t cook them at all.
Well, it got me to thinking. And here is what I figured out.
The white folks who eat greens are not just southerners–because if that was the case, then no white folks in Ohio would eat them who wasn’t originally from the south. As I noted, the African American tradition of cooking and eating greens traveled up north, as illustrated not only by my friend from Toledo, but by my contact with black students in culinary school from Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania who were scandalized by a chef’s attempt to bring down the fat content of collards by cooking them with smoked turkey wings instead of the sacred pig. Their horror was my own.
I finally realized that it was not only a southern tradition, but also an Appalachian tradition, to cook greens in combination with pork. The women from Newark and southeastern Ohio were the key to my hypothesis. They both grew up in the Appalachian region of Ohio, which showed the same exact culinary hallmarks that I grew up with in West Virginia, and the woman from the hills of Arkansas grew up with.
So that is what I think–the tradition of cooking greens of some sort with a smoked pork product is not only a soul food phenomena, or a white southern tradition–it is an Appalachian hillbilly culinary practice, which is just a little bit distinct from plain old southern foodways.
Now, if you have made it this far in my culinary detective work, you deserve a reward. Just for y’all, here is my recipe for my collard greens, which the women at the shelter, both black and white, rich and poor, city and country, insisted that I write down for them.
Quick Collard Greens
2 pounds fresh collard greens
½ pound bacon
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced, or ½ tsp. red chile flakes or to taste (optional)
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
Wash collards and remove the thick vein. Roll each leaf up, cigar style, and cut into ½ inch wide ribbons. Drain well in a colander.
While collards drain, cut ½ pound sliced bacon into ½ inch pieces, and fry in the bottom of a pressure cooker on medium heat until crispy. Remove bacon, and set aside. Add olive oil to bacon grease, and sauté onion until golden brown. Add garlic
and jalapeno or chile flakes and sauté until fragrant.
Add broth, and bring to a boil. When boiling, put collards on top, put lid on pressure cooker and lock into place. Bring up to full pressure and cook for five minutes. Quick release pressure, open lid, stir in bacon and serve.
Note: If you do not have a pressure cooker, this will take several hours to cook—plan time accordingly.
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