On New Year’s Day, millions of African Americans (and southerners and southern transplants of all races) will have a pot of collard greens simmering on their stove. Why? Because eating greens on that particular day portends prosperity, in terms of bringing more “green” ($$$) for the rest of the year. It’s a fun New Year’s tradition (but one that has rarely worked for me in any significant way). It’s also a dish that remains a mystery to those who haven’t spent much time in the American South. But making greens is easier than you think, especially since you can use nearly any type of greens available.
The History in Those Leafy Greens
Greens thrive as a culinary New Year’s Day tradition because African Americans have an intense love for the edible green leaves of plants, a.k.a. “greens.” The particular culinary crush on collard greens took root ages ago in West Africa.
West Africans have long combined edible plant leaves with proteins and vegetables to create a wholesome, boiled meal. This is a sharp contrast to Western Europeans who thought of greens as something people ate during times of famine or poverty. Enslaved West Africans took this culinary signature with them across the Atlantic Ocean and transplanted it in the Americas.
The first generation of enslaved West African cooks in Colonial British North America didn’t have access to the bitter, tropical greens that grew in their homeland. The use of a particular green wasn’t as important to them as using any type of green that imparted a bitter taste. So, they substituted the bitter greens that Europeans cultivated in the Americas, because they would grow in sub-tropical and temperate climates. They also foraged for wild greens that were indigenous in the Americas. From the wide array of greens that they utilized, cabbage, collard, kale, mustard and turnip greens became the most popular. Successive generations of African Americans, enslaved and free, have savored these bitter European greens ever since.
The Start of a New Tradition
So, how did greens become such a vital part of the traditional New Year’s Day plate? The custom originates in Western Europe. In Germany, there’s an old tradition of eating white cabbage on New Year’s Day to bring an abundance of money. A sizable number of German immigrants settled in the American South during the antebellum period, and they brought the cabbage-eating superstition with them. As more and more non-Germans adopted the custom, they swapped cabbage for other greens that they preferred. Today, any type of greens can be eaten to fulfill the tradition.
Start this new year off right with a pot of greens simmering on your stove. Whether or not some money does actually come your way, your health, at least, should certainly improve when you eat a steady diet of dark, leafy greens.
Johnetta’s Mixed Greens
This is my favorite thing to make in the soul food genre. I didn’t grow up eating collards. Johnetta Miller, my late mother, usually made a combination of mustard and turnip greens. Turnip greens seemed to be the popular option for greens as I traveled through Tennessee. I love the peppery aroma that mustard greens give off while they’re cooking. I’ve lately been using smoked turkey parts to season my greens because they give good flavor with less fat. Yet, every once in awhile, I go retro and put on a pot of greens with some ham hocks.
Makes 8 servings
2 smoked ham hocks or smoked turkey leg or wings (about 1 pound)
1 1//2 pounds turnip greens (approximately two bunches)
1 1//2 pounds mustard greens (approximately two bunches)
1 tablespoon granulated garlic or 2 minced garlic cloves
1 medium onion, chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt
- Rinse the hocks, leg or wings, place them in a large pot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the meat is tender and the cooking liquid is flavorful, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the hocks, leg or wings, unless you want to chop up the smoked turkey meat and serve on top of the greens.
- Meanwhile, remove and discard the tough stems from the greens. Cut or tear the leaves into large, bite-sized pieces. Fill a clean sink or very large bowl with cold water. Add the leaves and gently swish them in the water to remove any dirt or grit. Lift the leaves out of the water and add them to the hot ham stock, stirring gently until they wilt and are submerged.
- Stir in the onion, pepper flakes, baking soda (which helps tenderize the greens, remove bitterness and retain the color), sugar, and salt.
- Simmer until the greens are tender, about 30 minutes. If you substitute sturdier greens like collards or kale, adjust the cooking time to 45 minutes to an hour. Check the seasoning, add chopped smoked turkey (optional) and serve hot.
This article is adapted from Adrian Miller’s James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. His next book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas will be published on President’s Day (February 20), 2017.
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- Nine Things You Need to Know About Soul Food
- Seven Reasons Why the South Rules Comfort Food
- A Twist on Greens: Braised Leeks and Mustard Greens