Jeff will object to my regionalist comment here, but he is from Michigan, a land that is bereft of the Southern culinary ritual of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year's Day in our attempt to draw dollars-and-coins-style increase for the coming year. Because of this cultural gap, he forgets to order peas in time for the holiday and has tried to pass off something similar as the real thing. Last year, he actually made hoppin' john with Great Northern beans to the dismay of many of our customers, a faux pas he sought to remedy in 2010 with a last-minute run to the co-op in Pittsboro to pick up a few collards and locally grown peas for a little side dish to appease me and the other folks who live too far from home to get grandma's variety.
While he was slow to come to the notion of peas and greens as ritual, Jeff has turned out to be gifted at cooking these delicacies, and he has received the stamp of approval from several respectable Southern cooks on his recipes for them. It's not surprising--though I do love my dear Memaw, I grew up eating collards that had been boiled to mush, punctuated occasionally by a rubbery bit of ham hock. Jeff has found a remedy for this unfortunate fate that often befalls the hearty green, and he discovered a nice method for sauteing field peas that fits the black-eyed variety just right.
Perhaps it was the flavor--or maybe it was the desperation of Southerners looking for good luck for the new year--but we finally made Jeff a believer in this dish when we ran out of collards midday on New Year's Day. I was sent for more, though I wondered about the possibility of success this late in the holiday. I set out for Carrboro, hoping I'd find a supply of the stuff in one of the markets.
Halfway up the road, at Stuydivant's Auto on NC-54, I noticed a marquis that read "collards." I pulled onto the gravel drive, hoping to find someone to make good on that promise. Round back of the barns there to the side of the auto shop, just next to a couple of nice fields, I imposed upon three gentlemen chopping firewood to find out where the collards were.
"How many d'ya want?" one man asked, stepping away from his work to help me. I asked if we were talking about bunches or baskets, and he said, "No, plants." I turned around to see that behind me were growing several rows of giant collard plants, bursting forth from their mounds like green sunbursts. He quoted my price, and I asked for ten plants, please. He picked up a machete sitting on one of the rows and began harvesting my purchase. It was only after I had to fold down the seats in my station wagon that I realized how large the plants were; in the end I drove away barely able to see past the leaves, my car stuffed with the elephantine bouquets.
I arrived back at the store and paraded about with one of the plants, delighting in the others' amazement at the bounty with which I had returned. Dion, one of the store's cooks, immediately set to work breaking down the plants into manangeable bits for cooking, and then he braised the greens for serving that night at supper. We served enough that day and the following days that if greens really do turn to money, Saxapahaw's residents can expect a real boon in 2010.
From my New Year's Day adventure, I took two concepts I'll carry with me through this year. First, the ritual of food contributes much to the identity of a place in an ever-renewing way. The place carries the traditions, inviting us to join in whether we were born in one location or elsewhere. Second, prosperity visits a community when its members rely on their neighbors for their provisions. That those collards were alive in a field minutes from our store, and that they were sold to me by the hand that raised them, made me truly prosperous to receive them. This January, I am grateful for these rituals and for these neighbors.
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