The panhandle of Florida has a split personality. One is the fast-growing barrier island of Pensacola beach, where in recent years the million dollar condominiums have obliterated the funky homeyness of the beach I once knew. Another is the downtown core and the suburbs: a small town and comfortable to negotiate, with a strong sense of its own history, a university, symphony orchestra, opera, lively arts community and an increasingly diverse restaurant scene, snuggled in along the waterfront.
Out in the north end of the county is yet another aspect of the whole. It’s a place where many people still grow their own gardens, and really do sit on porches and visit. Folks who live around here, as we do, know how to find fresh greens. Collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens. Southern penicillin.
Buck and I took Maggie out to a friend’s place yesterday for some swimming and dummy throwing. Our friend has hay fields and a pond. The hay is bailed now and it looks like some scene from the Midwest, flat and grassy, with a line of trees way at the back. Another friend had told us to look for the old man who sells greens. It was right on our way.
We found the place, a small, ramshackle roadside stand, but the old man was nowhere in sight. “Greens, $2,” scrawled on a piece of plywood. “Turnips – $2 a bag.” (that’s for the turnip roots). “Rootabeggers – $2.” And, scrawled beside a white-washed lock box with a slot cut in the top, “Put money in box.”
Maggie has a bad habit of reaching over from the back seat of the truck and eating our cheese sandwich lunches if we both get out of the truck at the same time, so Buck and I pooled our dollar bills and I hopped out to check out the greens. They were all beautiful. The turnip roots had been bagged up in white plastic bags and tied. I could tell by the firm, heavy feel that they were fresh. A plywood shelf holding the collard greens sagged under the weight. Two dollars’ worth of collards here was like getting it free. Two bundles were tied together with rough brown twine, huge and heavy. I had to wrestle them into one of the black garbage bags the old man had left on his wooden table by the money box.
Sliding our four dollars through the slot, and wishing the old man were there so I could thank him, I lifted the lid of the camper top and carefully placed these treasures on the floor.
At our friend’s place, while we watched Maggie take a long line and fetch dummies from blinds, his mother came by. She learned about my greens’ project and wanted to know how I was going to cook them. Now, this fine woman has been cooking greens for her family since way before I was born. Her eyes narrowed slightly, and I knew I was in trouble. Mama was going to take the measure of this city woman, from my cute little hat all the way down to my jogging shoes. I stammered around long enough until she said, “You’re going to use pig tails aren’t you?” My eyes may have bugged out just a little bit. Her mouth twisted. “Or if not that, surely pork necks?” I tried to recover. “Uhm. . . where can you get them?” Her kindliness, her very “mama-ness” took over and she began to smile. Taking me by the hand, she said, “Oh, girl, you’ve got to come see me so I can teach you how to cook.” But it was clear that I got major points for being willing to buy collard greens which seemed to demonstrate some character virtue in her mind, and additional points for having the strength and pluck to strip the leaves from the stems, cut them into small pieces and somehow turn those huge bundles of bodacious green into something one might eat.
No, I didn’t season them with pig tails or pork necks. Actually (and I realize this is heresy in many quarters), I sauteed onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil, then added some chicken stock, black pepper, a teaspoon of sugar and some cut red pepper flakes, simmered it for awhile, then stuffed the greens into the pot, where they cooked down into the most delectable, velvet-textured mouthfuls of southern penicillin.
The coffee cup contains “pot liquor” — cooking broth from the greens. Maybe its why Buck hasn’t had a cold in fifteen years!