Food & Drink

Collards are a New Year’s Day tradition, especially in the ‘collard belt’

Mama’s New Year’s Day Collards (with a Little Tinkering)
Mama’s New Year’s Day Collards (with a Little Tinkering)

Growing up, New Year’s Day supper was always scary to me.

Imagine if you can, and I’m pretty certain some of you have had this experience, that along with the bowls of black-eyed peas and collard greens was a platter that proudly held, not a ham or turkey, but a hog jowl in all its glory, complete with the hog’s teeth, served on the fine china and in the dining room.

Think about that for a moment. Visualize it. Teeth on china to start the new year.

I laugh about it now, but it also evokes memories of the pure joy my Mom and Dad had when they would tear into that beastly looking thing. My folks were part of that group of hardscrabble, Depression-era rural farmers, and while they had become city folks, I really believe that to them, this meal represented survival in tough times.

It was a meal that reminded them that wealth and health could be fleeting. The jowl was one recipe I never asked my mother for, although I wish now that I had done so.

One New Year’s Day after my freshman year at N.C. State, I invited my citified girlfriend to that supper. My mother hollered at me for doing so: “You know what we eat, and I’m not changing a thing just because you met a girl! She can eat what we eat or just go hungry!”

Maybe she was trying to scare the girl away. Mothers can be like that about their only son.

After three days of complaining, she finally added fried chicken to the menu, much to my relief.

What changed my folks’ opinion of this girl was the fact that she jumped into the bowl of collards like she would never get them again. And my mother, she softened, and Dad flirted. Good thing too, because I married that girl. Did the collards seal the deal?

Eastern North Carolina is the “collard belt” of the country. If you get much past Greensboro, mustard and turnips take center stage, but you cook them just the same way.

It took me years to finally get all of Mama’s tricks for collards out of her. First, use cabbage collards that have been “frost-bitten.” You’ll find those at a farmers’ market and most independent grocers. The most important thing is “shining the greens.” That is the step below where you skim the fat off the “pot likker” and stir it back into the collards. Do not skip this step.

There will be pork on my table Jan. 1, but no jowl, and black-eyed peas for luck and collards for wealth in the New Year.

How about you? Do you really want to tempt faith and tradition?

On a personal note, I really appreciate you for reading throughout the year and sharing your food stories with me. I am blessed to do what I do. Have the very best in 2018.

Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. Reach him at

Serve with: Most any winter meal from a pork loin to a pot of beans. Collards are great with fish and are incredible under a steak.

Drink with: A North Carolina dry, semi-sweet Norton grape-based wine or a Riesling.

Mama’s New Year’s Day Collards (with a Little Tinkering)

4 strips thick-cut bacon, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

1 quart of water, vegetable broth or low sodium chicken broth

4 cloves of peeled garlic, left whole

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 large meaty smoked ham hock, or if you must, a smoked turkey part

2 bunch, about 5 pounds, cabbage collards, cleaned in several rinses of water and stems removed, and roughly chopped.

Kosher salt and freshly grounded black pepper to taste

Additional vinegar, and hot sauce if desired

Place a stockpot over low heat. Add the bacon and slowly cook to render the fat. When the bacon is crisp, remove and reserve.

Cook the onion in the bacon drippings until “lazy” and slightly colored, about 5 minutes. Pour in the liquid and the remaining ingredients, except the collards. Increase your heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and continue cooking for 20 minutes. This is the “pot likker.”

Add in the collards, a handful at a time, stirring each addition until wilted. Believe it or not, they will all go in the pot. Cook over low heat for 2 hours or until tender.

Remove the hock and let cool. Drain the collards, reserving the liquid. Place the liquid in the refrigerator for a quick cool down.

Chop the collards if desired. Taste for salt and pepper. Break apart the hock, separating fat and meat, and finely dice the meat and stir into the collards. Remove the “pot likker” and skim the white stuff off the top and stir into the collards. Reserve the liquid for dipping cornbread.

Transfer the collards to a bowl and top with the crisp bacon. Serve with a bottle of vinegar and hot sauce for the table. Freeze any leftovers.

Yield: 8-10 servings