Noah has been getting a bit of instruction this week about living frugally when he gets his first apartment. Mark knows something of this subject. Professor Mayhew and his two sisters were raised by a single mother who earned just enough money as a bank teller to keep food on the table. Poor people’s food. Beans, rice, cornbread, greens and maybe – just maybe – a pork chop every now and again. When I first met Mark he would not even eat beans and cornbread. He was saturated. And now he cannot fathom a meal that does not include meat. It’s a symbol of security.
The other night we were talking about the origins of poor people’s food. Some of it has African origins – field peas, okra, eggplant, peanuts and yams. Some was the “waste” the plantation owners thought not fit to eat. Greens and the nasty bits of meat – offal and, believe it or not, pork ribs. Corn, which was introduced to settlers by Native Americans, became cornbread because flour for biscuits was too expensive.
All of that, of course, became the basis for what we now think of as Southern cooking.
The menu for that night encapsulated Mark’s childhood – crowder peas with chow-chow and mayonnaise, cornbread and “killed greens”. Or as Mark’s Granny Belle used to call them “kilt greens”. She also pronounced “idiot” as “idjut” – Appalachian to the core.
Mark boyhood memory: “I have a distinct memory of finding green lettuce-like plants growing in a creek while playing. I went home and described the plants to Granny Belle, who immediately got what she referred to as a “paper poke” (paper sack), and ordered me to show her the plants. We walked about a mile and a half to the creek and picked the branch lettuce (watercress), then walked home. That night, I had “kilt greens” for the first time.”
There are no measurements for killed greens. But the preparation goes something like this. Take a bunch of watercress or sturdy lettuce (I actually use turnip greens) and chop it in a bowl. Then fry up some bacon or fatback. As the grease renders add four or five sliced green onions (which also grew wild) and saute them until they’re tender. Chop up the bacon and add it to the greens. Then pour the bacon grease and onions over the greens and toss. Eat immediately.
Is this in any way good for you? No. No, it is not. Is it oddly soul-satisfying? Completely. As Mark says, when you eat greens doused with bacon grease you don’t miss the meat.
We feasted. The mayonnaise on the crowder peas, by the way, came from my father-in-law, a good Georgia boy who knew how to improve on an already delicious bean. Noah is quite the adventurous eater, but I’m proud to say he also appreciates his roots.
For a slightly healthier version of killed greens, try Frank Stitt’s take. The owner of the Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham takes Southern classics and reinvents them. Olive oil replaces the bacon grease in this recipe for wilted greens.