Dr. George Washington Carver is best known to America's schoolchildren as the inventor of scores of peanut products for home and hearth. That's where most school curricula stop. It must be known, however, that Carver was a maestro of much more, and was one of America's leading botanists and agriculture scientists of his time. In her book The African American Heritage Cookbook [1996, 2005], Carolyn Quick Tillery explores many of Carver's historic recipes, generally a reflection of Southern cuisine, and specifically of African-American cuisine
Where did it come from? African-American cuisine (also known as "soul food" since the 1960's) is a combination of cooking techniques and ingredients (sorghum, okra, rice) brought from West Africa, plus ingredients from Europe, the Middle East and Native America. Again, African-American cuisine shares many similarities with Southern cuisine in general.
As pointed out by food author Celia Barbour for O Magazine, African-American cuisine (or "soul food" as it was first called in the 1960's) is traditionally a cuisine of "[e]ating organically, sustainably [sic] and locally" . A culinary tradition that was grown out of resourcefulness, specifically in the South. She first had the idea of it being excessively fattening and unhealthy.
Like most culinary traditions, African-American cooking was long a balance of wholesome and unwholesome elements. The good ones kept the bad ones in check, until this equilibrium was upset by the processed and fast food industries. In the past few decades, traditional dishes have been supersized and made with nontraditional ingredients, and meals that were formerly eaten only on special occasions have been marketed as everyday fare. (It was hard to gorge on fried chicken when you had to first catch, slaughter, gut, and pluck the obstinate bird; quite another matter when it came in a bucket for $6.99.) Processed foods also recalibrated taste buds: "normal" came to mean excessive amounts of fat, salt, and sugar. It was a toxic mix. [Barbour 2010]The truth, as she found out, is somewhat different.
I leafed through a book called Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, by Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history at Marist College. I learned that for thousands of years, the traditional West African diet was predominantly vegetarian, centered on things like millet, rice, field peas, okra, hot peppers, and yams. Meat was used sparingly, as a seasoning. [Barbour 2010]That includes, specifically, the many vegetables, nuts and fruits that African-Americans and others throughout the South grew wherever they could find room to grow it. As for George Washington Carver, professor at Tuskegee Institute, he was an authority in growing these many varied crops: okra, snap peas, black-eyed peas, corn, collard greens and mustard greens, garlic, onions, etc., etc.
Carolyn Quick Tillery [1996, 2005] collects many of Carver's recipes for the modern chef and historian. For more historical context, as she notes, so many African-American sharecroppers were forced to grow cotton and not food on the land outside their homes, being forced to buy whatever food they needed from the plantation's commissary at sky-high prices, keeping them poor and dependent upon them.
Upon his arrival [at Tuskegee], Washington observed that the common diet of sharecroppers was fat pork, corn bread, and, on occasion, molasses. When they were without fat pork, sometimes their only food was the corn bread, served with black-eyed peas, cooked in plain water... Washington urged [the sharecroppers] to ask for a small plot of land on which to grow food and raise chickens. [He] showed them how to maximize production of the plots or to live off "nature's bounty" where no plot could be obtained... In addition to showing subsistence farmers methods of increasing their yield, Carver, an accomplished cook, shared recipes and preservation methods with their wives, and as a result, the women began to participate as well. [Tillery 1996, 2005: x-xi]As Tillery found out while researching her book, she found that "the first Tuskegee students grew their own vegetables" [Tillery 1996, 2005: 124]. George Washington Carver himself noted in his Up With Slavery his relationship to agriculture:
When I can leave my office in time so that I can spend thirty or forty minutes in spading the ground, in planting seeds, in digging about the plants, I feel that I am coming into contact with something that is giving me strength for the many duties and hard places that await me out in the big world. I pity the man or woman who has never learned to enjoy nature and get strength and inspiration out of it. [Washington Carver, quoted in Tillery 1996, 2005: 125]I've tried to fancy up most of these last ten recipes in this State-by-State series, but this time I'm keeping leaving it un-zhuzh'd, so to speak, and doing Carver's recipe straight up. You can find the following recipe for collards and cornmeal dumplings (with exact measurements) on page 127 of Tillery's African-American Heritage Cookbook.
The Recipe: Dr. Carver's Collard Greens with Cornmeal Dumplings
* collard greens (Duh. I was in Whole Foods when I bought these. Since George Washington Carver's foods would have been, by default, "organic" by modern standards, I went ahead and bought as much, $3 per bunch for two bunches. Had I bothered to go to the farmers' market first, I would have found the same ones for about $2 a bundle. Wah waah.)
* ham hock (the recipe says you can also use a turkey wing. One package was about $6 at Giant)
* onion (just one, about half a dollar)
* dried chile pepper flakes (had one laying around)
* jalapeño (a few cents for just one)
* garlic powder (had garlic salt, which meant I didn't need to use actual salt. But I did use...)
* seasoned salt (or in this case, Old Bay. I rarely miss an opportunity to use this for something)
* sugar (had it)
* pepper (same)
* bacon (had that too)
Start by sautéing your bacon in a heavy bottomed pot or Dutch oven.
Meanwhile, wash your collard greens and chop up. I took my kitchen shears and minced them up in their bowl.
After chopping your onion and chile, sauté them with your bacon.
Then throw in a ham hock and fill the pot with water until the ham hock is about covered.
Bring the water to a boil...
...covering it with the lid for half an hour.
Then add your collard greens and any other ingredients.
Continue to cook them for at least an hour.
Dr. Carver also added cornmeal dumplings to his collard greens. To do this, gather the following (I actually had all of these laying around, except for the milk, about $1.30):
* corn meal
* bacon grease
* baking powder
Mix the dry ingredients together...
And add the eggs and milk.
Stir until lumpy.
Already nice and dumpling-y.
I don't eat collard greens often. This is a recipe I should be making more of. The collard greens burst with so many different flavors, from the greens themselves to the bacon and ham hocks. This with the delicate, salty dumplings make this a meal in and of itself. You don't need anything else with this. It is its own meal.
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Dr. Carver's collards are part and parcel a quintessential example of both African American cuisine and Southern cuisine. Again the two are intertwined. And next week we examine the South some more with another dish that I grew up eating, done up a way that I never ate it.
Barbour, Celia. "The Origin of Soul Food". O Magazine, July 2010. All rights reserved.
Tillery, Carolyn Quick. The African-American Heritage Cookbook: Traditional Recipes and Fond Remembrances From Alabama's Renowned Tuskegee Institute. Citadel Press: New York, 1996. First paperback edition 2005.