Food - Chef Nick Oltarsh considers collard greens

A most-beloved, albeit stinky, Southern staple

Collard greens, the leafy greens of the Brassica Oleracea species to which cabbage and broccoli also belong, are the ultimate Southern vegetable. Think spinach's unkempt, rather large, rough-and-tumble cousin who's spent a lot of time kicking around in the dirt. Along with fried chicken, slow-cooked vegetables, biscuits, and field peas, collards form the cornerstone of Southern cuisine. So when I say they stink like fetid ass when they cook, I do so with great deference for a cuisine outside my Northern culinary roots.

Collards — like opossum stew, fermented whale blubber, and stinky tofu — take some getting used to for those mere mortals whose last names are not Zimmern or Bourdain. Who in their right mind dives into a bowl of snotty natto (fermented soybeans) unless their mommy has been feeding it to them since they were toddlers? Not having been reared on puréed collards, the smell and taste of the greens were a wee upsetting and perplexing to me upon first exposure. I was working in a catering facility at the time and my nose crinkled involuntarily as the first whiffs ushered by. I wondered, "Who just flossed their teeth for the first time in 10 years?" Viewing the vat of bubbling shredded greens intermingled with onions, garlic, and pork bits, I marveled at the ancient sewer stench of it all. "How could something as innocent as greens smell so bad?" I asked myself. "Did someone just sheer a moist, ripe, and woolly sheep?"

Then again, how can I not respect a vegetable whose funk brings to mind the roguish but charming skunk Pepé Le Pew, and whose primordial appearance whisks me back to my youth? When I was a young lad exploring the bucolic bits of my suburban community, I often frequented a muddy stream with banks that were lined with low-laying skunk cabbages like prehistoric vegetation. The broad leaves, limply spread out across the soggy dirt, were dense and ugly and gave off sulfurous fumes like the cauliflower my mother cooked occasionally for dinner. As a child, I imagined brontosauruses lowering their long necks to nosh on the smelly leaves, snorting and trampling among the steamy greenery, the strong malodor of fart in the air. Collard greens are dead ringers for the skunk cabbage of my lost youth.

Not only does their bouquet impress, so does their proportion. Collard leaves are as large as tropical palm fronds. In preparation for restaurant deliveries, the greens are string-tied into hefty bundles and then thrown into the corner of the delivery truck, mounded high from dirty floor to ceiling, free to stretch their wide leaves without the constraint of a cardboard box. I like to think that collards' personality is too big to be crammed into a typical produce delivery box, just like no one puts Baby in the corner in Dirty Dancing. When collards arrive at the restaurant, their leaves sheath an entire six-foot kitchen table, awaiting their six-hour destiny in the stockpot. Cooks descend on the collards, knives in hand, and prepare the greens for their Southern fate. Then comes the addition of fatty pig morsels (smoked ears, queues, salty hocks, snouts, and fatback all make good bedfellows), a good swill of vinegar, sliced colossal onions, pounded garlic cloves, gallons of Atlanta tap, a liberal amount of salt, and low steady heat.

Collards are pathetic when they first begin to cook and one wonders if they will amount to anything; their prospects appear dim. The stiff onion slivers bob on the top of the pot, brazen in their separateness. The raw pork bits appear flabby and washed out, and the shredded collards drift hopelessly around the cooking liquid looking lonely and lost at sea. But after several hours of a mellow simmer, the onions start to wilt into the greens, the pork renders its gift of fat, the liquid reduces to a pleasant hue, the greens yield their tenacious fibers, and the ingredients transform into a tasty pot of greens. (I admit they're not half bad!) The resulting liquid, called pot liquor, is often eaten with corn bread. Many places call it potlikker, a name I prefer, as I think of someone eagerly licking the bacon-laced liquid right out of the pot.

Why is it that particular cultures seem to enjoy and/or appreciate what is objectionably strong in smell or taste more than others? I suppose acculturation through a lifetime of exposure softens the olfactory blow and helps us appreciate what is forthright in flavor. And then there is learned behavior and the comfort of eating traditional foods from our youth — regardless of whether they are good or bad — which is relative, anyway.

A Korean family, for example, would be hard-pressed to consider a meal without kimchi, a flavor profile many Americans find unpleasant. And I don't care if you ask a Japanese person or an American, stinky tofu smells like death. Of course, we have our own crosses to bear here in the United States. Case in point: Americans love Fritos even though they smell like damp junior league baseball socks. And most Americans love a good turkey on Thanksgiving, never mind the dryness of the bird. Alas, Southerners are loyal to their collard greens and the fact is they taste a lot better than they smell while they cook. My Southern acculturation process is at 10 years and counting. Now I will eat collards when placed in front of me — but I still won't order them.

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