Ok, let’s just do this.
By now, you’ve seen the social media stories about Neiman Marcus selling mail-order collard greens. But in case you haven’t, here’s their ad:
Judging from the reactions we’ve seen on Black Twitter, I’m assuming that when you first heard about this, you threw up a little in your mouth. Not necessarily because of the collards themselves (because in all fairness, we can’t taste a photo, and for all we know, they may be quite tasty), but at the very idea of shelling out $81.50 ($66+$15.50 shipping) to put some greens on your holiday table.
So what do we do with this?
1. Dan, they just don’t look right.
My first reaction was that the greens look like a fast food dinner salad. But, again, in fairness, we might consider a couple of things:
First, greens are idiosyncratic. Everyone has their preferences. They look too dry to me, but maybe that’s only because I have a preference for greens soaked in their broth (pot-likker). Some people may be turned off by the bacon. Traditionally, greens have been flavored by some sort of meat, and in the southern tradition, that means some sort of smoked pork, like a hamhock or neckbone. Of course, many modern cooks have turned to smoked turkey necks or tails, both to cut down on the fat and to avoid dietary taboos related to pork. Similarly, many restaurants offer vegetarian or vegan greens. Personally, I like the combination of a smoked turkey neck and a fresh pig tail, but as I said, greens are idiosyncratic that way.
In the universe of meat-flavored greens, some folks do use bacon. And then–how can I say this?–we might want to allow Neiman Marcus some latitude here. The kind of folks who can afford to plunk down $81.50 on collard greens might well find bacon bits more appetizing than a neckbone.
Second, let’s remember that we’re looking at a food photograph. Has your fast food burger ever looked like this?
Of course not. Some people were turned off by the bright green color of the greens here. But that may represent a photo editor’s idea of what looks good. It may also represent the way the greens were cooked. Traditionally, Grandma let the greens stew all afternoon till they came out dark green or olive drab. But some cooks today (again, the idiosyncrasies!) will parboil the leaves for a few minutes, and then quick-chill them to stop the cooking process briefly before returning them to the pot. The result is that the brighter color is fixed. I tried that last Christmas, with the idea that it would make the greens look more festive, like the green color we associate with Christmas:
Moreover, for whatever reason, collard greens are challenging to photograph. Or maybe it’s just me being idiosyncratic again. I have a terrible time making my collards look good in photos. (Of course, if you think the green-greens above look just super-yummy, then I take that back.)
2. Ok, Dan. We’ll cut them some slack. But the NM greens still don’t look very good.
Let’s whip out that “idiosyncratic” word again to raise another issue: Who would spend $81.50 on greens that they might not even like? In the offline world, we learn whose greens we like and whose we don’t care for (sorry, Cracker Barrel). But we make those decisions largely on single servings. NM’s greens may look inoffensive, and we assume that a mass-marketed product would not be too unusual. But if we’re wrong, we’ve just bought ourselves three pounds of very expensive kitchen trash.
3. Dan, stop dodging around the gentrification issue.
I’m just going to say it: Would a person who spends $81.50 on mail-ordered frozen collard greens even know whether they’re any good or not? In the last few years, collards have become trendy among folks who want to be sure to be eating trendy food. In 2014, Whole Foods posted their infamous “Collards Are the New Kale” feature. Some may want to try collards just because Chip and Muffy were simply raving about it at the club.
Well, so what? Who owns collard greens? Technically, everyone. The Greeks were growing collards at least 2,000 years ago. The dictionary folks think “collard” is a corruption of the English “colewort,” which links it to its cooler-weather siblings, cabbage and kale. Collards in turn handle the heat better, and so it does well in the uplands of the south.
As such, early on it became a staple for many poor folks, whether black or white. The broth or “pot likker,” mopped up with cornbread, was a good source of vitamins, recapturing the nutrients leached out of the collards during the long cooking process.
So down south, lots of folks might lay claim to collards. But up north, collards are more commonly considered part of the “soul food” menu. So when wealthier white folks suddenly get interested in collard greens, it feels like gentrification. White folks are coming in, taking over, and pricing black folks out of the market. Again.
Are we making too much of a bowl of greens that many younger African Americans can’t stand? Sure. But it points us to a simple solution: If you’re really so desperate for collards that you’re prepared to pay $81.50 for frozen ones, why not go to your local soul food restaurant or African American caterer, and buy fresh? Even fancier places, like Pearl’s Place, in Chicago, or Dulan’s on Crenshaw, in Los Angeles, sell sides of collards for just $4.00, and in most places, it’s more like $3.00. Then, ten servings would cost just $30-$40, tops. Moreover, you’d be serving a fresh side, not something frozen and reheated, and you could taste it in advance.
This is nothing against the good folks at Neiman Marcus. Maybe their greens are great, and if money’s no object, they’ll even deliver them to your door. But if you buy local, you’ll at least know what you’re getting. You don’t have to worry about participating in appropriation or gentrification. And you’re supporting local businesses, just at the time when young African American chefs and caterers need help to build their careers in the face of institutional barriers.
Buying greens local, or making your own, also makes it more likely that you’ll be getting the most important intangible: love. Cooking collards requires some love. The leaves have to be washed and chopped up (many of us add a step in between, tearing the leaves away from the woody stalks). Then the cooking process takes a while, especially if you’re creating a meat-flavored broth. Along the way, there’s plenty of opportunity to personalize the dish, and make it your own.
Bottom line is that even if I could afford to buy luxury collards online, I’d still rather make my own, like this batch I made for last Juneteenth: