As a girl growing up in LaGrange, Georgia, collard greens were my favorite vegetable. My Uncle Bill, a farmer who lived out in the country, had fashioned a rickety old pickup truck into a mobile vegetable stand that he used to supply our community with what I thought were the best vegetables in the world. Every week, he’d make the long drive up from the outskirts of town, slowly weaving his way through the neighborhood while belting out a refrain that I can still hear in my head today.
Veeeeeegetables! Get your fresh vegetables!
My heart would jump every time the call rang out. Not only because I adored my Uncle Bill, but because I knew that a Sunday dinner with family, friends, laughs and stories — along with a big pot of Georgia collard greens — was not far behind. Also, because he usually had some sweet fruit for us to eat.
Those memories — that feeling of home-cooked greens and familial gatherings — stayed with me as I got older, even as rickety old vegetable trucks evolved into orderly grocery stores and I moved from LaGrange, to Nashville, to Indiana, and finally to Houston. But as I began my adult life, it wasn’t often that I actually re-created the memory. While I still loved the taste of those slick, seasoned greens, I didn’t always feel up to the task of preparing them. As a student at Tennessee State University, I was laser-focused on becoming a business woman without much inclination to spend a Sunday washing, cutting and boiling greens. By the time I became a mom, it was all about fast-food drive-throughs, pizza deliveries on Fridays, and frozen veggies, packaged for easy preparation between dance practices and performances, Girl Scout meetings, choir rehearsals, science projects, football games and PTA meetings. The smell of home-cooked collard greens became more and more rare.
But the desire for it never left. Shortly after my youngest daughter left for college and my husband and I became empty-nesters, I reached back and found the green thumb that ran in my family from Uncle Bill on back. It was as if the ancestral memory was beckoning to finally be brought forth. So, it was a no-brainer for me on what I wanted to grow. The first seeds I sowed in my garden were Georgia collards.
Being in U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 9a, I quickly learned that Houston was just as fertile for collard-green cultivation as LaGrange was. But that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. Those first few years were quite a learning experience, which is a nice way to say that I made a mess. My rows were too close together; I was planting crops out of season; I used chemical-based fertilizers; heck, I didn’t even know that the scrap bucket my uncle periodically exchanged with us went into his compost pile. I dug into existing soil that needed amending. I drowned it with chemical-based fertilizer. The result was a lot of bugs and a garden that had developed a chemical addiction. Uncle Bill’s vegetable truck may not have looked so sophisticated, but the skill level he had developed to consistently bring good food to harvest was immediately clear to me. To properly grow my collard greens and reclaim the memory, I realized I had a lot of growing to do as a gardener.
I kept at it. I researched as much as I could online and attended gardening classes hosted by the U.S.D.A. Extension Bureau at Prairie View A&M University. But most importantly, I got connected with a farming couple who live in the country outskirts of Houston — one a nutritionist and the other an engineer — who became, and still are, my mentors. As is often the case in any context, getting connected to a larger community was a game changer. They gave me the guidance, resources and support I needed to take my gardening to the next level. They taught me how to plant with the seasons, how to naturally control pests and how to feed the garden with natural products — such as molasses and seasoned compost — instead of chemical-based fertilizer. Soon I was growing greens as good as the ones off Uncle Bill’s vegetable truck.
As that community grew, I started to get a lot more than just gardening tips. I got a new perspective that deepened my “why” for gardening. A perspective that extended far beyond nostalgia — one that was about improving my health through the food that I grew. I became more and more conscious not only of my growing practice, but how I prepared and consumed the harvest. A wellness M.D. suggested that I start incorporating more fresh vegetables into my diet, and to stop preparing them with so much meat. As someone with lifelong lung issues, I realized that eating better was a tool in the fight against disease.
My first course of action was to stop boiling the greens in pork neck-bones and start using turkey instead. Pork was an important part of the traditional Southern cooking methods that I was raised on. But I was now realizing that, not only did it supplant the natural flavor of the greens, it turned what could have been a plant-based option into something that may have been diminishing my health instead of supporting it. I also realized that this was not just the case for me, but for my family, my community and my fellow humans in general. A lot of my friends and family considered it a sacrilege to cook greens without pork neck-bones, but with Black Americans being 60% more likely to receive a diabetes diagnosis than non-Hispanic whites, and with more and more chatter about holistic health entering the mainstream, none of them could deny that an alternative was necessary to improving our health and our community.
After that, I stopped boiling the greens altogether. The wellness doctor and nutritionists who were now part of my greater gardening community pushed me to go even further. Whether there was meat in the dish or not, the high heat involved in the boiling process was destructive to some of the best nutrients that the greens carried directly from the garden. Instead, I began sautéing them to preserve some of the Vitamin A, C and K — among many other things — that were being diminished in the process.
Now when I harvest greens, after washing them with a capful of vinegar to rid them of any remaining pests or hard-to-see garden grit, I chop them into small pieces, spread some oil in a cast-iron skillet with sliced onions and garlic, then stir them on medium heat, adding fresh herbs like oregano as I go. I add a little water, cover the skillet and let them steam on low heat for about five minutes. You don’t taste the smoked meat that once overpowered the dish, but instead you get the rich fresh flavor of the greens. If you have taste buds like I once did, it will take some getting used to. But I guarantee you will grow to love it. You might even begin to crave the freshness.
I took it even further after that, making collard greens the primary component of my morning smoothies. Like many people, I initially thought smoothies were supposed to be super-sweet and filled with fruit, which is fine if you’re looking for a super-sweet and fruity drink. But I was looking for ways to transform my health, so “sweet” wasn’t my main priority anymore. I went from making smoothies that were 85% fruit and 15% leafy greens, to making smoothies that are 85% leafy greens (like collards, kale, mustards, etc.) and 15% fruit. To make things easier, I often prepare pre-made ingredient packets that I store in the freezer.
As I grew in gardening, I saw the benefits that improved cooking methods had on me and my family, and I became an evangelist for healthy living throughout my community. I shared some of what I learned with the Wellness Ministry at my church and hosted garden parties and Sunday dinners like the ones my Uncle Bill once provided vegetables for — the same ones my mom used to host for family and friends alike; the ones that left such a lasting impact on my mind and heart.
At one of those get-togethers, my good friend and neighbor, Val Taylor, an awesome cook who continuously refines the fine art of Southern cuisine, used some of the greens I grew, as well as other fresh vegetables from the garden, to prepare what she calls a City Girl Gardener “No Lettuce Salad.” It’s a combination of green vegetables, used as the base instead of normal salad greens, massaged with citrus juice to soften up their texture, and dressed up with a medley of garden fixings that make it both sweet and savory. The dish was a hit. Even young children were asking for seconds! Their parents asked for the recipe. New alternatives to old favorites were opening up in their minds.
I like to think a new tradition was born that day — one that doesn’t diminish the legacy of my mom and the cooking methods of the generation before me, but refines it, allowing it to feed both our guts and our souls. Sometimes, now, when I’m harvesting my greens from the garden, that old refrain from Uncle Bill pops in my mind.
Veeeeeegetables! Get your fresh vegetables! tg
Mother-daughter duo Debra Brooks and Jada F. Smith make up the creative team behind The City Girl Gardener. A Certified Organic Vegetable Specialist, Debra is a healthy-living advocate with 15+ years of backyard gardening experience in Houston. Jada F. Smith, a former journalist, helps bring her mom’s words to life. Find more of their garden stories on Instagram at #citygirlgardener or at www.citygirlgardener.com.
By Debra Brooks
Certified Organic Vegetable Specialist & JADA F. SMITH
CityGirlGardener.com | @CityGirlGardener