Collards Calling

Collard & Kale seed packets from the Anchored Homestead

I woke up thinking about collards. One morning a few weeks ago I simply woke up thinking about these broad leafed beauties and couldn’t stop! Early March in Indiana makes for frigid nights and brisk mornings. As I woke, morning sun streamed through the bedroom, making patches of “sunshine tractor beams” where kitties were caught and then melted into the floor or over the side of the bed into Dali paintings. From the farm that we share our property line with, I could hear the horses in the pasture, whinnying, galloping and playing; renewed spirit on display, as we all shared warmish wisps of that first, welcome spring sunshine. Early spring mornings are glorious: bright sun beckons us to come outside. The eye might expect warmth, but our lungs fill with crisp, cold, bracing air. Breath steams in the shade making little smoke signals in the air, then, disappears as we step into the sun. The warmth right now is only in those sunshine patches. Living so near, I have discovered that horses and cats are not so different, both following the sun throughout the day. Layers and scarves and maybe even gloves are needed to venture out for more than the morning paper. As morning fades into mid-day, layers are peeled away. In later afternoon the search for those strewn layers begins. We retrace our steps, adding the layers back on as sunny patches fade again into the shaded, brisk chill of evening.

On this recent morning, those sunny tractor beams streaming through the bedroom windows brought collard seeds with them! As I lay sleepily in bed and contemplated my morning routine, I begin ticking off the list of vegetables that could be grown this year. We have 3 small raised beds, one already filled with garlic for an early summer harvest, a large garden tower a smaller tower and plenty of smaller vessels for flowers and herbs.  I allowed the calendar of spring weather and available containers to conveyor belt through my mind, taking inventory. What could I get into the cold ground for early planting? What few things would love these tendrils of warm spring sun and withstand the cold, still occasionally well below freezing nights? Mother’s Day weekend is a safe rule of thumb for most planting but the earth was calling now.

Collards, I could plant collards! Their heavy stalks and sturdy, deep, dark blue-green leaves could stand up to this weather. Kale was a “maybe.” Radishes were a “yes,” but you can’t make a meal out of radishes. Oh the idea of those seeds going in right now, and watching them throughout March, knowing that by late April, if Mother Nature was benevolent and cooperative, we would have collards. My heart thumped as I experienced a small infusion of inspiration that I have been bereft of for so long.

I can’t remember exactly when I fell for collards, but they have long been a favorite in our house. They were not grown in our family garden when I was a child. I had eaten collards a number of times, but I first learned to cook them myself when I was a teen. My family lived briefly in Macon, Georgia around my freshman and sophomore year in high school. Our neighbors, whose names I sadly cannot recall at this writing, were a lovely couple who pastured at a local church. Reverend, as we called him, was in and out of their house more during the day due to his work. My brother and I were home during the summer while my parents were working, so I had begun taking over most of our meal preparation. Reverend did most of the cooking in their house due to his more flexible schedule and had advised us on how to buy quality collards. I clearly remember him telling us how much to buy. It seemed like a shopping cart full!  Then one afternoon, he gave me instructions on how to prepare them. Throughout the day, as I washed, stemmed and then cut the collards into small squares, he would pop his head into the front door to see how I was doing, or I could go knock on their door to ask him questions. I recall there was some discussion between the reverend and his wife, my dad and me about the seasoning meat for the collards. So many options!  I don’t remember that pot of finished collards or which seasoning meat I used that day. What I learned from that experience of cooking my first ever batch of collards though would serve me well throughout life: the power of community cooking, the necessity of food to build bridges by passing on cultural knowledge and building relationships all while providing nutrition and sustenance. That lesson in food culture, not just the recipe or finished product, but the discussion with Reverend and his wife, their “collard stories” served to further broaden my already existing interest in food culture. As I look back, I realize how important that one pot of collards was. It opened up the world to me in new ways.

The universe was affirming my collard day dreams. My friend Emily at The Anchored Homestead is an avid seed saver and gifted gardener. While chatting later that same day about the weekly duck egg pick up, I mentioned my desire to get some collards going. What were her thoughts on planting this early? She advised “yes” on collards and “maybe” on kale. And guess what? She had seeds to share! I spent the day dreaming about collards. Later that evening, I settled in to watch a little television. Chef Vivian Howard’s show, A Chef’s Life (PBS), is a family favorite. The hubs and I have watched all the episodes and some several times. I saw that her new show, Somewhere South, was available. I pulled up a blanket, settled in with a squishy cozy cat and low and behold, an entire episode on collards rolled across my iPad! Ideas I had never even considered were presented: fried collard sandwiches (what?!) with Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina to preparations from global cultures (coconut collards? I’m in!), I was immersed with Vivian in all things collard. How fun was this? Collards were now a definite “yes.” I had not felt excited about something like this in a long time. One little vegetable had re-energized my soul.

At our weekly duck egg pick up a few days later, Emily had tucked 3 carefully folded and stapled little packages of collard and kale seeds into our bag. I felt like I had just received treasure! Those tiny little seeds, in those practical little stapled wax packets, could be cast aside, offering nothing or becoming bird seed. Or, I could plant them, burying my treasure in dirt, face them toward the sun and wait. Nature, which still seems like magic to me every time I plant something, would soon turn those little seeds into food! Those little waxed opaque packets held more than seeds; they held history and culture, tradition, food and nutrition. Those tiny little seeds, so easily lost to a breeze or simply rolling out of my cupped palm, held  promise.

I popped the Vates collard seeds into the one side of the grow tower, the kale on the other. The Georgia Southern variety will go in this week, with a goal of staggering the harvest. There are so many options for main and side dishes. I can taste the golden, rich pot liquor and feel the nutrient dense, comforting deliciousness calling from our sunny backyard. There is no such thing as “too many collards.” If we do by chance get over run with collards, it’s easy enough to share them with friends or to make my favorite Indian saag for the deep freeze.  Yes we will be making those coconut collards too! I’m reigning in gardening projects this year, so I suspect that these dark green leafy beauties will be taking center stage in our available dirt. Collards, here we come!

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