Ira Wallace knows people think collard greens aren’t sexy.
“It’s your grandmother’s food—it’s not so exciting and classy," says Wallace, co-owner of the cooperative Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. That's why, when doing cooking demonstrations, she doesn't initially reveal that it's the ingredient of her wildly popular “Brazilian greens."
“People say, ‘What is that?’” Wallace says. To which she responds, “It’s not your mama’s collards! Don’t you love it?”
They really do.
In the era of “superfoods,” collards are hardly the only nutritious green to be largely overlooked while kale, with its celebrity fans and catchy hashtags, has reigned supreme for years, becoming shorthand for clean, healthy living. (See Who Owns Kale?)
But watercress, Chinese cabbage, and chard actually took the top three places as "powerhouse fruits and vegetables” in a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Kale came in 15th.
So why haven’t other greens gotten kale’s star treatment?
Collards, the 'Other' Healthy Green
The answer seems to be that it’s mostly in our heads. We think kale is the healthiest, the stuff of smoothie-swilling yogis. Collards are the domain of poor Southerners, drowned in pork lard. Watercress is for cute tea sandwiches. Chinese cabbage is, well, for Chinese food. And so on.
“Food is very intimate—you're putting it inside your body," says Marion Nestle, a nutritionist, professor, and author. And that intimacy means that the taste of a food doesn’t matter so much as the meaning it's given by the person eating it.
“If you eat it and it tastes like medicine and you think you’re doing wonderful things for your health, I can see why it would get some traction,” says Nestle, who prefers arugula over kale.
Kale may be viewed as practically medicinal, but collards just can’t seem to shake off their own downmarket reputation.
“After the Civil War, collards and black-eyed peas were what poor people in the South subsisted on for a few years," Wallace says. "As people rose up in class, [not eating collards] was a way of distancing themselves."
And for some, collards were viewed as an African American food and, thus, “other.” In Vibration Cooking or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, the late cultural anthropologist Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor relates an anecdote about a white woman who asked her, “What do you people do with those [collards]?’’
“The exchange suggests that collards, until about 40 years ago, if not more recently, were thought of as a black thing—at least to white Northerners," says Rafia Zafar, a professor who teaches a course on food in American literature at Washington University in St. Louis. "[But] Southerners of all kinds claim these greens."
What's in a Name?
Like Ira Wallace with her collards, George Chen, a chef and restaurateur who's opening ChinaLive—dubbed the “Eataly of Chinese food”—in San Francisco in January, isn’t above using a little wordsmithing to get people to try something new. Back in 1995, when he opened Betelnut, a Bay Area restaurant specializing in street food, he sold xiaolongbao rebranded as “little dragon dumplings.”
So-called “Asian” vegetables like gai lan and ong choy can seem insurmountably foreign and intimidating to the unadventurous, Chen says. And yet, with names like Chinese broccoli (as gai lan is often known) or water spinach (ong choy), they're suddenly made more approachable. The same is true for Chinese cabbage, often sold as Napa cabbage.
“They're just greens,” Chen says. “There are really no foreign vegetables ... Vegetables grow in the ground—there is no ethnicity to [them]. Once you show people what it is, then the fear goes away. They realize that they might like it."
Wallace, who saw her Seed Exchange’s Alabama Blue collard greens outsell any single variety of kale this year, agrees.
“We know people are interested," she says, "but they need a little education.” She thinks cooking demonstrations have played a big role in changing people’s minds about collards.
And if the cool kids like it, we’re that much more willing to try it.
This is touchingly illustrated in “Mama, Fix Collard Greens for Me,” a poem by Roger Swagler originally published in 1984 and reprinted in Collards: A Southern Tradition From Seed to Table. The poem tells the story of a young woman who moves to New York from the South, eager to be free of her unglamourous roots, when her mother ships her a “mess” of greens:
The collards arrived and her daughter was sad
As she looked at them there on the plate.
… but just then a friend
Tried the greens and said, “Oh! These are great.”
And now in New York you’ll not find wine and cheese
At the clearly most fashionable scenes.
Oh, no, if you’re upwardly mobile and hip,
The smart thing’s to eat collard greens.
Rebekah Kebede is a journalist based in Kingston, Jamaica, where she has written for Reuters, Quartz, and GOOD magazine, among others. Prior to moving to the Caribbean, she was a correspondent for Reuters in Perth, Australia, and New York City. Find her on Twitter.