Collards

A Tribute to All Mothers

 

            Tonight I was reading Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Inman, the protagonist, met an old crone on his journey home. One way in which she made a little money was by selling or trading tracts in the nearby town. She showed one to Inman that had a topic The Collard: Tonic for the Spirit. I am sure that referred to some old wives' tale attributing to collards medicinal and psychological qualities somewhat akin to today's popular St. John's Wort. The title gave me an instant emotional hug for it reminded me of my mother, Bessie, who was called Boppa by her sons - my brother and myself.

            Boppa cooked collards in the fashion of the Old South which renders all vegetables unrecognizable to any Damn Yankee or modern-day nutritionist. Oh, how glorious were Boppa's collards pressure cooked to the color of a bluish bruise and flavored liberally with a big piece of fatback and an aptitude of salt and pepper that would make any cardiologist faint. It must be at least thirty years since I last tasted Boppa's collards, but I can taste them in my mind so acutely that I might have eaten them for this evening's meal.

            How can it be that something that smells so wretched can make one's mouth water with anticipation? To walk into the house and inhale that unmistakable pungency was a gratifying experience of my youth. To me, the smell of collards cooking was an engulfing cloak of security and nurture - the feelings given only by a mother's love and devotion. A father loves, protects, provides, but a mother - and mothers from the beginning of time - nurtures, feeds, sustains. That odor that so many attribute to what surely must be the foul stench of Hell was a message to me that Boppa was there, and all was well.

            Maryland, my geographical position in the United States for practically all of my adult life, traps me in that limbo area between the Old South and the Old North. In Maryland, collards are almost unknown. They have a green here called kale that many swear "is just like collards," but it isn't. There is nothing to which one can compare collards.

            Collards are unique and stand alone in the pantheon of vegetables unappreciated by today's masses desiring vegetables that are nutritious, green, and crunchy even after having been cooked. Collards belong to an era of dusty roads, bare-footed children, men in overalls, and women in thin cotton housedresses. Collards belong to poor people - especially the poor people of the South. Today's affluent movers and shakers don't really deserve collards because their souls are lost to modern sensibilities, and collards are Soul Food.

             Soul food, in today's world, has assumed almost mystical qualities, but those of us who grew up poor in the South are the only ones who truly understand the source of the mysticism. All soul food is a true "tonic for the spirit" because it represents a cocoon of love provided by our mothers which helped us to survive when survival seemed impossible for didn't they do the impossible by taking something as wretched and common as collards and transforming them into ambrosia?

            I was recently in my local supermarket, and collards were actually offered amongst the fresh vegetables. I began stuffing the huge leaves into an equally huge plastic bag provided by the store for it takes practically a bushel of collards to make one good serving. Another man - similar in age to myself - was also gathering the leaves into a bag, and I struck up a conversation. Anyone who knows me can testify that I am not wont to conversations with strangers, but the sight of collards had so lifted my spirits that I had the courage to do so. I cannot tell you how long the two of us talked about how to cook collards and our memories of eating them in childhood. You see, my mother - long dead - was there making me a brave little boy. She was there to give me a gentle push and assure me that I had something worthwhile and interesting to say. Her spirit and soul were there - in those collards. Her spirit and soul were there - in me.

            So why don't collards taste as my mother's when I cook them? Why doesn't anything taste as my mother's when I cook it? Boppa taught me how to cook collards and crispy fried chicken and peach cobblers and fried okra and field peas and those heavenly biscuits, but I can't make any of them taste the same as she. The answer is incredibly simple. I cannot add the most important ingredients to any of Boppa's recipes for I cannot add the soul and the spirit. They are the mystical spices that only mothers can add to the pot. Mothers can cook authentic soul food. The rest of us merely cook imitations.

            Please do not draw the conclusion that soul food is the exclusive province of African Americans for it is not. It cannot be denied that the struggle of the African American mother is far greater than her Asian, Native American, or Caucasian counterparts. Credit must be awarded when due for those African American mothers surely deserve a special place in Heaven. Mothers of all races fed our bodies and our souls, and we became better for it. Some have become so modern, so successful that they would not think of eating collards ever again. Most of us, though, wallow in that peace and warmth provided by the recollections of our mothers' cooking be it ever so non-trendy and unhealthy. Those remembrances are so potent. Can't you smell it; can't you taste it - right now? Can't you feel your mother's warm hug? Can't you feel the touch of her hand? Tonic for the Spirit! Tonic for the Soul!

 

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