What is the History of Collard Greens?

I was recently asked a great question on our food tour in Savannah: “What is the history of collard greens?” Well, greens date back to prehistoric times. They are practically the dinosaurs of edible plants– they’re one of the oldest members of the cabbage family, and in fact are also known as tree cabbage or non-heading cabbage. Their origin is usually erroneously stated as being African, but they were a Mediterranean dish long before they were popular in Africa. That’s not to imply that there is no African connection, however.

How were collard greens introduced to America? Greens originated near Greece, but it wasn’t until the first Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s that America got its first taste of the dark green, leafy vegetable. Collard greens were just one of a few select vegetables that African-Americans were allowed to grow and harvest for themselves and their families throughout times of enslavement, and so over the years cooked greens developed into a traditional food. Even after the Africans were emancipated in the late 1800s, their love of greens continued and they kept handing down their well-developed repertoire of greens recipes from one generation to the next. Greens that have been cooked down into a thin, delicious gravy (known as “pot likker”) is definitely of African origin. The pot likker is quite nutritious and delicious, and contributes to the comfort-food aspect of the dish.

After the American Civil War, destitute white Southerners began eating collard greens and found what African-Americans had known for ten generations: they are delicious, and nutritious! In fact, collard greens are one of the most nutritious of the cool-season vegetables— they are bursting with vitamins and minerals that help prevent and fight disease. Today, many varieties of greens— collards, mustard, turnips, chard, spinach, and kale— continue to be a traditional offering at picnics, potlucks, parties and family dinners. They are standard fare on any Southerner’s table. If you’re looking for good collard greens in Savannah, my top choice is Angel’s BBQ: they prepare an African recipe that uses peanut sauce. Another great choice is the Olde Pink House, which uses a more traditional collard green recipe.

We hope you enjoyed this short history of collard greens. If you did, you might want to consider booking a Savannah Culinary Tour, a foodie tour in Savannah with the delicious food included in the tour price.


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