Taste this!

CorrespondentDecember 29, 2006 

  • What: Collards, corn bread and hoppin' John.

    How much: $9.

    Where: Nasher Museum Cafe, 2001 Campus Drive, in the Nasher Museum of Art, Durham; 684-6032, www.nasher.duke.edu.

If you've lived in these parts long enough to understand the subtleties of when it is proper to say "y'all," then you may know about the Southern tradition of eating collard greens and black-eyed peas on New Year's Day. The greens symbolize money, and those who consume it on that day are said to be assured of receiving plenty of the folding green stuff in the coming year. The peas, you might say, are insurance. Because they resemble coins, their consumption is also considered to be a virtual guarantee of a financially successful year.

Historically, this special meal was consumed at home. But in recent years, a few restaurants have gotten in on the act. For my money, anyone interested in enjoying these traditional foods without actually having to cook them (and thereby learning firsthand why it's called "a mess of collards") should head for the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham. There, in the Museum Cafe, chef Amy Tornquist and her crew will do the cooking.

Tornquist, whose steeped-in-the-South culinary pedigree is backed up by a degree from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris, simmers the collard greens in country ham stock with bacon and red pepper flakes until they're tender and sweet. Alongside the collards she serves black-eyed peas in the form of hoppin' John, a Southern staple that pairs the peas with rice in toothsome tandem. Rounding out the plate is a slab of buttery corn bread whose recipe can be traced to Tornquist's tutelage under the late Bill Neal, legendary founder of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill.

Technically, you can't get this meal on New Year's Day; the museum and restaurant are closed. But you can get it any day of the week except Monday, during lunch or brunch hours, between now and the end of January. I'm sure the authorities on Southern heritage will grant special dispensation and allow full financial credit for any collards and black-eyed peas consumed during this period, especially if you stick around after your meal and check out the museum. We Southerners think culture is a pretty good thing, too.

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