Posted on May 18, 2015


I’ll sometimes search for a book to read that has absolutely nothing to do with my work, my current research or writing projects. I usually fail dismally in this effort to separate myself from work.

Invariably, the book will add to my growing data base of probably about ten or twenty projects I’ve got underway.

As a child I was bored, but now God has seen to it that I will never be bored again by filling my head with too much stuff.

However, I think I hit a home run with a new book, Collards, recently published by the University of Alabama Press.

I am currently working on a lot of things, including a long-in-the-making book on the air war over the Battle for Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, April, 1961, and I’m collaborating with an ex-CIA friend on a movie script for a retelling of the old movie, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (circa 1944) about the Jimmy Doolittle-led raid of April, 1942. It lifted American wartime spirits and knocked a hole in Japanese triumphalism and invulnerability.

None of the above has one single collard in them. If you like collards, you need Collards by Edward H. Davis and John T. Morgan.

I had no idea they occupied such an important dietary and cultural niche in Southern life. They were lowly on the totem pole of culture, but now are enjoying a rise in popularity that can only be styled the gentrification of collards.

I actually never saw a collard up close until I moved to Tuscaloosa many years ago to take a job at the University.

Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s I must have had my first collard experience, probably at someplace like the Citi Café in Northport, or maybe the old Posey’s just off the Strip. It kind of looked like spinach, and since I like spinach, I probably accepted it as another Southern rite of passage in my new life in the Deep South.

Unlike my two older siblings who were born on a sugar plantation in Peru, I was born in New Jersey, an event which my unregenerate South Carolina aunties and uncles never entirely forgave my parents. A little Yankee in our midst.

But family being stronger than the serendipity of birth, I was accepted. We didn’t eat collards in New Jersey, and if they served them in the Duke cafeterias while I was in college, I don’t remember them. I remember eating grits, but my tastes were pretty plain.

Then I lived in New Orleans for six years, and by the time I left, I would eat just about anything coming out of the swamps and wetlands of Louisiana, from shrimp to oysters.

So coming to Alabama I was not a novice eater, but not a seasoned Southern eater yet. New Orleans hardly qualifies as typically Southern. It has its own character.

I must have planted my first collards fifteen or twenty years ago. I also planted turnips and other greens, as well as the usual summer crops around here, tomatoes, beans, squashes, and I experimented with okra, black eyed peas, and sweet corn.

I started to eat collards seriously, as in looking forward to a pot of fresh collards boiled in fatty pork meats that could fill an artery in a New York minute, cooked by our housekeeper, Rosemary Dent.
We ate fresh collards all this past winter and when I saw the title, Collards, I snapped it up. What can you say, light or profound, about the leafy, deep green vegetable? It turns out, a lot.

This little book is a must for collard lovers. It has colored images of collards, Collard Festival queens (this is a Southern tradition), and eight chapters from “Celebrating Collards” to “Mapping the Southern Collard,” the last one reflecting the particular interests of the authors, both geographers at Emory and Henry College.

I particularly liked “Imagining the Early Southern Collard.” I thought, nice touch, employing the fashionable trend of invoking “imagination” in an examination of the roots of collards: where did they come from? Europe, Africa, native to the Americas?

For you cooks, there are favorite recipes from different Southern states on preparing collards. For farmers and merchants, chapters on growing and selling collards, and for you nutritional and diet nuts, how good collards are for you. They are, after spinach, the healthiest food of their type.
They have sustained millions of collards’ eaters over the centuries, mostly Southern and largely poor, but now are almost Yuppified.

Even Southern Living, a magazine for the upscale Southerner, threw in the towel twenty or thirty years ago and started featuring collards.

Published by the University of Alabama Press, you can get a copy from them, or your favorite book dealer, online or in person.

Published in my OpEd The Port Rail on Sunday May 10, 2015 in The Tuscaloosa News

Posted in: Life in America