Gumbo Collard Greens
How better to learn about your family history then through cooking?
I was cooking “gumbo greens” the other day when it hit me I never fully understood the emotional complexities of preparing food from an old family recipe. Gumbo greens is an old Crowe family recipe. Family recipes are full of history.
Gumbo greens are collard greens with onions, garlic, lettuce, avocado, celery, salt, pepper, tomato, and bacon.
My mother, my grandmother and I used the same recipe for gumbo greens, yet we process the food differently. My great grandmother taught my grandmother, who taught my mother who taught me. While cooking the gumbo greens, I recognized that the sacrifices in their lives allowed me to have a different cooking experience than they did.
The emotion that overcame me was gratefulness for my life and the opportunities it has granted me.
I pondered the different preparation methods we each used as we prepared the greens and how those methods mirrored the state of our lives.
My grandmother picked the greens that were growing in her the yard. She would wash the greens in a bucket, dipping them over and over in and out of the water. She poured out the water, got more water from the well, and washed them again.
My grandmother was the youngest of nineteen children. She was much younger than everyone else, a surprise baby girl born to her parents late in life. At least three of her older brothers and sisters were already deceased when she was born. Child mortality was high in her mother’s generation.
My mother washed the greens in the sink in our house. She washed the greens under the water faucet leaf by leaf getting the dirt off them. My mom purchased the greens at the local supermarket.
My mother was an only child. My grandmother had one child and no more. My mother told her children of her loneliness as a child; she often wished she had a brother or sister.
When I buy the greens, I get them at the Fresh Market, organic collard greens, that have been pre-washed for me. I still wash the greens anyway because that is how I was taught. It was not the washing of the greens that caused the wave of emotion. My throat caught as I was chopping the greens up when I remembered how my mother and grandmother chopped up greens.
I’m the oldest of six children. My mother raised us as a family gang. She made us loyal to each other as any demonstration of disloyalty your brothers and sisters was punished.
When cooking, my grandmother threw away almost nothing, taking only the largest stems, and the toughest leaves out of the greens. Everything else was chopped up and cooked. Nothing would be wasted.
As my grandmother was the youngest of 19 children; her mother wasted nothing in trying to feed that large family and taught my grandmother to do the same. My grandmother worked as a maid. The cost of food was a major driver all her life. She cooked every meal with money on her mind.
My mother was an only child. My mother decided that you did not need to eat the toughest parts of the collard greens. When she picked greens, she pulled the greens away from the stem about halfway, throwing away the largest parts of the stems. The rest was chopped and cooked.
My mom was a mother of six, working as a retail saleswoman. Time was of the essence. Discarding the stems significantly reduced the cooking time.
I am the oldest of the six children, although my mom taught me to pick greens her way, I don’t. I eat none stems.
I have two children. I was a corporate executive married to a salaried project manager. I toss all stems out. I prepare the tenderest parts of the collard greens by pulling only the leaf for cooking.
I was a salaried professional who could afford to buy and toss away the food that my grandmother would have chopped up for us to eat.
Next, the onions, garlic, celery, and parsley were chopped.
My grandmother would pick from her garden or buy her vegetables from neighboring farms. They were fresh.
My mother had to dig through the supermarket veggies as they were not the best. Often the supermarket had soft, smelly, almost rotten veggies that were transferred in from the suburban stores after no customer there would buy them. We lived in a near food desert, you got what you got and nothing more. Mom did not drive, so it limited us to stores we could walk to.
I buy my veggies at the Fresh Market or the Sprouts.
The vegetables are beautiful. Fresh, crisp, sweet and delicious. I don’t dig through anything.
Bacon, Bacon, Bacon
The next step in the process was to cook the bacon.
My grandmother used bacon harvested from the pigs that were slaughtered on the farm. She helped with preparing the raw bacon.
My mom used bacon she brought the grocery store.
I use organic bacon from free-range pigs. I laugh to myself thinking how I would explain to my grandmother why it costs so much money to use free-range pigs instead of just regular pigs to make bacon. In her mind, all pigs were free range.
We put the bacon in the pan and let it cook, but you are not cooking the bacon. You’re generating enough grease so we can sauté the vegetables. Once there is enough grease in the pan for the vegetables to sauté, I remove the bacon from the pan.
Start a large pot of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling add the half-cooked bacon to the pot. The bacon will continue to cook in the boiling water infusing it with that delicious bacon flavor.
In the meantime, we use the hot skillet of grease to sauté the chopped veggies. Once the onion, garlic, celery, and parsley have been sauteed are added to the pot with the bacon.
My grandmother did not sauté. Sometimes she didn’t have onion or garlic or parsley; what she had was whatever vegetables were available. She dropped those vegetables into the pot without being cooked. They would cook in the boiling water.
My mother started the sauteing of the onion, garlic, and parsley. my mom liked the sweetness that pre-cooking adds to the onion and the garlic.
I learned the size to chop veggies from my grandmother. She sliced the veggies into big juicy pieces; my mother, on the other hand, would chop the onion, garlic, and parsley into little bite-sized bits. My techniques are a combination of the two. I sauté big pieces of all the veggies.
I use a garlic mash on the garlic. I use a food processor on the onion and the celery, to chop them into the size I want. The same food processor processes the parsley, but I put a little water in so I can pour the parsley out because big leaves stick to the sides of the food processor.
I imagine explaining to my grandmother why I use a food processor to process one lousy onion and a small bunch of parsley. That pretend conversation made me laugh. She would crack up thinking about me and my machines.
Collard Green Guidelines
We put the washed and chopped greens in the pot. Put the top on the pot and walk away.
There are time guidelines for collard greens.
For al dente collard greens, cook the collard greens for 40 minutes.
If you like greens chewy instead of raw, then cook the collard greens for 50 minutes.
Cook the collard greens for 60 minutes to make them tender.
Both my mother and my grandmother cut the top and bottom off the tomato and chopped it into chunk size pieces before they put it into the pot, but not me.
I slice the tomato and de-seed by taking the seeds out. My grandmother and my mother would shake their heads about throwing away the perfectly good seeds of the tomatoes.
Cooking the greens for the appropriate time is a matter of taste. My mother, my grandmother and I all prepared okra the same way.
First, I cut the crown, then spin the okra around and cut out the pointy tip at the end. My mother and my grandmother could do piles of okra stacked up with two slices.
When I cut okra, I pulled three or four at a time, line them up in a straight line, cut off the tops, turn the okra around and cut off the bottom.
When my mother and grandmother cut okra, they’d finish the whole stack first cutting off the top and cutting off the bottom then cutting each of the pieces into about half an inch to 1-inch chunks so they never touched the okra again until they were ready to put it in the pot.
I go through cut off all the tops, and all the bottoms. Then take the okra and cut the individual okra one at a time into the same 1-inch pieces. I don’t run okra through the food processor because okra can be woody. The woodiness makes the food processor pieces unattractive whereas well-cut okra looks like a design. No one wants to eat ugly food.
Add the okra to the pot. Cook for another 50 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
My recipe deviates away from my mother’s, and my grandmother’s at this point. My mom and my grandmother would put in white vinegar. I put in red wine vinegar because I think it tastes better. Then, I add a head of iceberg lettuce and one avocado. Cook until the okra is tender, about one hour.
Taste the gumbo greens when complete. Salt and Peper to taste.
Add a small amount of avocado and tomato to the bottom of the dish. Dip the gumbo greens on top. Put a sprinkle of red wine vinegar across the top of the greens, a small amount of an avocado, a touch of tomato and a bit of green onion. Ready to go.
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two medium bunches of collard greens
medium red onion
two cloves of garlic
two green onions
one pound of okra
one large tomato
one small iceberg lettuce
two tablespoons of red wine vinegar
four sticks of celery
one pound of bacon
salt and pepper to taste
Put on a pot of boiling water; while the water is boiling cook the bacon until soft. Cut the bacon into small pieces and add to the boiling water.
Chop the onion, garlic, celery, and parsley into small pieces and sauté in the bacon grease. Only sauté until the onion is transparent.
Add the onion, garlic, celery, and parsley to the pot with the bacon.
Wash and chop the collard greens. Add to the pot with the boiling water, bacon, and vegetables.
After the appropriate time (see collard green guidelines), chop the okra into 1-inch pieces and add to the pot. Add the tomato after de-seeding and cutting into small pieces. Keep some tomato pieces on the side for garnish.
Cook for another 30 minutes. At the end of 30 minutes, peel the avocado, slice and add to the pot. Cook 15 minutes more.
Scoop a few greens out of the pot and taste to make sure you’ve added adequate salt and pepper. Adjust as needed.
Once ready, add a small amount of avocado and tomato to the bottom of the dish. Dip the greens on top. Put a sprinkle of red wine vinegar, a small amount of an avocado, a chunk of tomato and a little bit of green onion.
Gumbo greens is an exotic side dish for a dinner party.
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Each Generation Adapts the Family Recipe To Their Tastes
Cooking this dish made me think of how different generations change food preparation to match the circumstances. Are my gumbo greens that much different from my mom’s or my grandmother’s? It is the same recipe but adjusted for the tools and the taste of the next generation.
As in life, each generation adapts the recipes of life to match their circumstance. While cooking this dish, I felt close to my mom and grandma.
I wish I had understood this when I was learning how to cook. I wish I would have communicated this knowledge to my daughter and my son as I taught them to cook, but I don’t believe I did.
Family Recipes Are A Bridge Between Generations
I don’t know how my great grandmother cooked gumbo greens. I never asked. I wish I had.
Soon it will be my daughters turn to teach her daughter how to cook. This time I’ll be there to recite the stories of past gumbo greens and note the differences.
I will use the cooking training opportunity to clearly articulate the journeys of my grandmother, my mother, myself, and my daughter. My hope is that my granddaughter will pass the stories on when she teaches her family the recipe.
Family recipes are a bridge between generations. I won’t let the stories of our ancestors get lost.
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