Collards and Cracker Cooking


We had a great time cooking at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings historical home March 22nd. I found out the home had a smokehouse, so I made a “mess” of collard greens with smoked bacon the night before. I brought collard greens, Val Leitner from Blue Oven Kitchens brought fish she had caught herself a few days before and sour orange marmalade she made from Seville oranges growing in the historic home’s citrus grove. When we arrived, Stefanie Hamblen, writer of Hogtown Homegrown, made biscuits, cornbread, and then stuffed the fish with cornbread stuffing and roasted it. Val made a delicious drink with sour orange juice and orange blossom honey, like sour orange lemonade. I made hoecake, which is just cornmeal, salt and water, fried on an iron griddle. The tour group arrived at 11am, and we did our Cracker cooking and homesteading talk at noon, and then served samples of all the food. We had so much fun! The docents enjoyed it too, and asked us to come back next year!
messofcollardsFunny story about collards- We went into a grocery store in Denver and I saw a sign for collard greens in the produce section, so I went over to take a look. The “bunch” of collards was five leaves not much bigger than my hand and it cost $5!! That was a defining “I am no longer in the South” moment. For any of you not in the South, that photo above is a “mess” of collards, which is considered a generous serving for 5 people when cooked. That is $3 at a local grocery store.
baconI was kinda surprised when I posted about the Cracker cooking demo and several people said they had never heard of the Crackers. I am not a Cracker. Although parts of my family have been in Florida for three generations, those parts lived in Miami and were thoroughly urban. The rest of my family came down from Kansas (father’s side) and East Tennessee (mother’s family, which is why she pronounces “wash” as “warsh”). However, I have a passion for native and local foods and especially food history. If we explore eating only what grows here, then Cracker cooking is where we need to look. They were the pioneers, not only of the back woods of Florida, but also of the first fusion cuisine in Florida– the Scots-Irish, African, and Spanish food they brought with them combined with the foods they found here, and were largely introduced to by the Indian tribes living here.

The Best Collard Greens

The secret to good collard greens is long cooking and quality pork products. Bacon, ham hocks, or fatback is fine, so long as there is plenty of smoke and very little (if any) sugar. I highly recommend Graham Farms smoky bacon ends, available at the Alachua County Farmers’ Market.

1 mess of collards
1/2 lb smoked bacon, diced
2 whole dried red chile peppers

Pepper sauce/vinegar, to taste

First the rinsing. Fill your sink with cold water. Cut the thick stems off the bunch of collards, all the way up to the leaves. Then plunge the leaves into the water and swish vigorously. Collards grow in sand, and it’s tough to get all the sand off. Swish some more.

Get out a large stockpot with a heavy bottom and tight-fitting lid. Start the pot on medium heat. Put the diced pork into the pot and get it sizzling. Now lift a manageable bunch of collards out of the water and shake some of the water off. Put them down on the cutting board in a rough stack. Take one end of the stack and roll the leaves into a tight cigar. Now cut into narrow ribbons with a big sharp knife. Add the cut collards into the pot. Stir briefly to coat the collards in the fat. Then continue until all the collards are sliced and in the pot. You may have to wait between stacks for the previous stack to wilt down before you can add more, depending on the size of your pot. They will wilt down quickly. Once all the collards are added to the pot, stir until all the greens are coated in pork fat. Add the dried peppers and about a cup of water. Wait for the pot to come to a boil. Then put the lid on and turn the heat down to low. Cook, stirring about once an hour, for at least two hours. Three is better. The best is to let the collards cool, put them in the fridge overnight, and then get them piping hot the next day.

Serve with plenty of pepper vinegar/sauce, cornbread, and fried catfish.