I had a craving for some collards all week! I found some at WalMart two days ago and on Saturday I made a big pot of them just for me! I happened to enjoy an especially tasty bowl of down-home, honest-to-goodness collard greens when I was in, of all places Yankee, the Taste of Rochester food festival a couple of weeks ago. Uncle Mo’s booth had the most enticing aromas coming from the cooking pots and I approached with mouth watering, hopeful and yet pessimistic. There on the menu it said “collard greens’ and ” bar-b-que ribs” ! I skipped the ribs and ordered up a dish of that lovely olive-green goodness flecked with bits of smoky pork … OMG.. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Those boys can cook!! It took me back 40 years to my Mama’s table. Sometimes on a Sunday she would cook a mess of fried chicken, some baked sweet potatoes, corn bread cooked the proper way,in a skillet with pork fat, and either collard greens or mustard greens. I love them both. We also ate tons of fresh-shelled black-eyed peas, also cooked with a piece of smoked pork. Chicken gravy to go over the huge bowl of mashed potatoes completed the meal. For dessert, banana pudding or one of my mama’s coconut cakes.
Those were the good years. There were years earlier when the best my mother could come up with to feed six hungry kids was dried lima beans and rice and if we were lucky some salt pork fried up alongside. I used to gag on those damn lima beans. Tears would run down my face as I sat there trying my little-girl-best to swallow them down so my daddy didn’t take his belt off and tan my behind for ” wasting good food”! To this day I can remember the starchy nasty, taste of those beans combined with my fear of my father’s anger and self-loathing. He tried to provide for us all but sometimes at the end of the month the money just ran out. Then he’s get out his headlamp and his rifle and go out after dark to hunt the alligators. It was legal up until the 60’s to hunt them for their skins and my daddy was a pro at it! He’d come home around midnight with his truck filled with three, four, and five foot-long gators. He’d wait until morning to skin them out and salt down the hides. Then he’s take them somewhere (I never got to go with him when he sold the skins) and come home with a round roll of bills to help see us through the rest of the month.
I was famous in the family for loving to play with the dead animals. I’d get up early and drag those gators around the yard by their tails pretending it was I who’d shot them and I’d strut and talk about it to no one at all, just me and my imaginary friends. I always sat and watched my daddy skin them out. I can still smell the briny odor of those alligators as he carefully peeled the hide down those long reptilian bodies in one unbroken piece before he carefully salted the raw side so to preserve them till he could get them to the buyer.
After hunting the alligators became illegal he made even better money poaching them. We were, after all, Florida Crackers, and we did whatever was necessary to survive. We ate squirrels, doves, wild rabbit, deer, frog’s legs and fish. All free for the taking. It was a lot of work but we usually had enough to eat.
My mother planted a huge garden of greens, okra, peas, and tomatoes. Sometime we went into the huge commercial vegetable fields after the migrant workers had gone through and picked them over. The owners would let us on the fields to pick whatever was leftover, the imperfects or overlooked, for a very small fee. We would work, all us children and my mother for hours in the hot Florida sun hoeing potatoes or picking tomatoes or whatever was in season. Then my sisters and me would have to spend the next couple of days in a steamy kitchen canning up the surplus veggies for the winter. I hated it! It was unbearably hot and my hands would shrivel from being submersed in hot water peeling tomatoes for hours at a time.
I swore that when I grew up I would never can a vegetable or pick berries by the roadside, getting huge scratches on my arms and legs from the blackberry thorns, watching always for rattlesnakes hiding in the brush. And yet here I am, at 54 year-old and I can “put up” jams and jellies with the best of them. And I love doing it. Go figure.
I still won’t eat dried lima beans, though for love or money!