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‘What Even Are These Things?’

Collard greens offered me a lesson in survival of the spirit

Michael Twitty
August 08, 2022
Flickr user Jacqueline
Flickr user Jacqueline

Nothing is as awkward as the moment you find out someone is not your ally, your acquaintance, or even your friend. The moment when you discover real distrust and antipathy. It gets worse when it’s your culture, your identity, and your place that are on trial. You question all of who you are. It isn’t any fun to commit to being a native and being treated like an alien.

One of my first big catering gigs was for someone I can no longer call a friend—although our separation was not based solely on the incident I talk about here, but it definitely left an impression. He was a rabbi, and for the small community he served, he asked me to make a meal at his home for about 75 people, based on my “koshersoul” style of cooking. I agreed for a fee I would later laugh at, but I took the job because we had a friendly understanding. His wife was understandably nervous about a stranger in her tightly kept kosher kitchen and had her misgivings, but by the minute, I got more and more of a feeling that it was less my method of cooking than its material that turned her off. The final straw for the Yankee wife of the Southern rabbi was collard greens.

Collard greens. Brassica oleracea var. viridis. Collard greens are on my African American Seder plate, which I use the last two days of Passover as a symbolic piece. Collards are the maror, the bitter greens, representing the bitterness of American chattel slavery. True to the season of Passover, spring collards are increasing in bitterness while winter collards mellow and sweeten. They were once endemic to the gardens of enslaved African Americans, a replacement for the many leafy greens our ancestors ate in West and Central Africa.

My ex-friend’s wife stumbled into their apartment, stressed and angry. Her husband had put her on the spot, asking her to go shopping for unfamiliar ingredients while he minded their baby girl. She left with my esoteric list of soul food products destined for that evening’s Shabbat oneg, catered by me. Collard green kreplach was the dish. Kreplach, Judaism’s opposite side of the Silk Road’s relationship to wontons, are traditionally stuffed with bits and pieces of this and that—leftover meat from soup or brisket, bits of veggies.

She did not look at her husband. All the rage was centered on me. “What even are these things?” I was hoping that it was fake rage meant to stage a joke.

My fervent fantasy was to have a life of constant Black-(white) Jewish moments of mutual understanding. We would all sit side by side, learning about each other’s families, and I would teach them everything I knew about collards and learn their grandmother’s favorite recipe for (name that dish). This moment was where I learned to let that go.

“Collard greens?” I said, trying to deflect with a smile. “They’re good for you. My grandmother and mother and I used to make them all the time. You’ll love them.”

“I’m not touching them. How can these things even be kosher?” she raged. “Probably full of bugs. Whatever they are, they are gritty and dirty, and it got all over me, and now they are in my house and my kitchen. I hope you’re prepared to clean up after yourself because I can’t deal with this.” Grocery bags went into the kitchen. Cue slams. Muffled voices behind a bedroom door—not an argument but a disagreement and a series of hushings. I felt humiliated.

In truth, my mother and grandmother were just about better than any mashgiach in ensuring the collards were clean. We would examine each leaf up to five times, washing and rewashing, even using a drop of mild detergent in the second rinse to clear out any remaining bugs or dirt before rinsing another two times until the water ran clear. We looked at every hole, at the stalks, and in the bottom of the big bowl for grit like miners looking for gold. The greens were rolled and cut into ribbons and rinsed again. Only when the matriarch pronounced them clean did they go into a rolling, boiling pot of broth-driven pot liquor seasoned with smoked turkey and onion, seasoned salt, and red pepper.

My fervent fantasy was to have a life of constant Black-(white) Jewish moments of mutual understanding. We would all sit side by side, learning about each other’s families, and I would teach them everything I knew about collards and learn their grandmother’s favorite recipe for (name that dish). This moment was where I learned to let that go. This scene was not a Hallmark movie or after-school special. I was at the wrong place, apparently doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. My ego could not let me break Shabbat.

My mind immediately went to the dark place of the lives of so many Black women and a good number of Black men who worked as domestics and cooks for white people. That was also a history being enacted here in a very different way. I had no excuses to frown. Thousands of others had survived tens of thousands of moments like this microaggression—assumptions of inadequacy, suspicions of contamination. Looking back on it, it was a good reminder that I was not special and that history had more to teach me than anecdotes; this was a lesson in survival of the spirit.

I worked my way through the methodical ritual of cleaning the greens, and every few minutes, I felt the rabbi’s wife ’s head over my shoulder from the door, throwing scowls. They had lived in Asia, traveled widely, seen actual treyf and temptations, but it was my greens that somehow embodied the scary world of the unfamiliar. I reminded myself that this very American food was here before their ancestors had disembarked from the far east of the Pale of Settlement. Soon, their home began to smell as endearingly familiar to me as it was uncomfortably exotic to her. In a very tense afternoon, I learned what made me and what it would mean to stand up for my Black Jewish self.

Under threat of snow, I worked with a fever to get Moroccan carrot salad, za’atar chicken wings, barbecue seasoned roasted potatoes, and collard green kreplach ready before sunset. The greens simmered away without the benefit of the smoked turkey, but the pan bubbled with yellow, red, and orange peppers; red onions and garlic; and smoked paprika and kosher chicken bouillon. With time not on my side, I worked the little triangular kreplach and sealed them off with egg wash and set them to bake like spanakopita as the clock ticked down, and I set myself to washing the dishes so I wouldn’t catch more hell.

An hour before Shabbat came in, the food was carted away. I showered and dressed, got dropped off to give a special talk at Friday night services. The assembled crowd for the oneg didn’t leave a wing or bit of potato behind, and that night the one thing that everyone asked me the recipe for was the collard green kreplach. Before I said a single word about how much of this or that was thrown in the pot, I told the onlookers and eavesdroppers all about the green savior of the enslaved people’s quarters that nourished our people in their journey toward freedom while maintaining a key healthy component of our African dietary roots. Before the candles burned out, a merciful God gave me my moment to be an alien no more.

Excerpt from Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty. Published by Amistad. Copyright © 2022 HarperCollins.

Michael Twitty is a culinary historian, food writer, and educator. Follow him on Twitter @KosherSoul.

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