You haven’t truly lived until you’ve had a good pot of collard greens. Collards — not to be mistaken for mustard or turnip greens— collards by far are the best greens hands down. If you know your greens, you know the others, don’t compare. Collards are the best when they’ve been chiffonade-cut (“shif-oh-NOD” — a knife technique used for cutting herbs and leafy vegetables such as lettuce into thin strips), washed at least 4–5 times, and placed in a pot to simmer with the best ham hocks you can find. There is literally no food quite like it. It’s been said that collard greens are the best after they’ve steeped in their own juices — better known as pot liquor. That’s one reason they’re so good. The best collard greens are made with love.
It didn’t matter whether I was visiting my grandmother in Tuscaloosa, AL, or coming home from UT Austin— I could always count on a good ol’ pot of greens to meet me at the door. The unmistakable smell of collards wafting from the kitchen throughout the house let me know I was home.
I’ll never forget the day my mom called for me from upstairs. I had just made the drive home, and all I wanted to do was relax. I truly believe sitting in traffic shortens your life. It’s time I never seemed to get back, even with the best design podcast playing. When I finally arrived in San Antonio, I was TIRED. Glad to be home, I dropped my newish DSLR at the door, kicked off my shoes, and headed upstairs for the recliner.
Before I could recline the chair, my mom said, “Did you bring your camera with you?”
With a bit of hesitation (I know my mom definitely heard), I replied, “Yes, I have it.”
My mother is the reason we have any family photos. She insisted on documenting things. And I mean everything. PreK graduation. Church events. Picnics in the park. Family portraits only she could commission. Graduations. And literally every milestone in between.
“Come in here, please, and bring your camera. Your grandmother is prepping some greens.”
I thought to myself, “Really? Right now?” I just wanted to sit down.
You see, my grandmother was home. She wasn’t visiting this time. Instead, she was home and here to stay as we all decided this was the best place for her care. As I made my way downstairs, I saw my grandmother Golightly sitting comfortably at the kitchen table. Next to her lay mounds of freshly-washed, bright leafy greens, untied, stacked, and ready to be cut.
Listen. Believe me when I tell you she was READY. There she sat in one of her favorite house dresses with her hair neatly tucked away under her blue satin bonnet. A maroon bath towel lay across her lap to catch clippings. Her chair was facing outward, so when I came downstairs, she was immediately within sight. What seemingly felt like production at the time was a storied ritual my mother witnessed growing up.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I still wondered what the big deal was. I mean, I was there for the GREENS. God knows I was ready to eat. But, what was the purpose of taking pictures of greens? I just wanted to consume them. I realize now how much effort it took to get her downstairs from her room and why it was important to document the preparation. There was so much more to be captured and understood.
As she began to cut the collard greens, I listened to my mom ask her various questions. What began as an impromptu documentary-style shoot became a lesson.
Remember how I mentioned earlier about the LIFE the best-cooked collards yield? Well, it’s TRUE. The most important thing in cooking greens is ensuring their prepared with love. The second most important thing? Collard greens can’t be rushed. They won’t cook the right way —my Grandma Golightly’s way. Everything my grandmother did was with intention. She didn’t play around. And she’s probably the reason we grew up in a household where half-stepping wasn’t something that was tolerated. If my brother and I were going to do something, we did it right — or not at all.
My grandma’s life was an extraordinary one. She raised a family (of 5) at home while taking care of a White family down the street. The impact she had in her community was renowned and still respected to this day. You could see her life in her hands. The beauty and the pain. The victory and defeat. Countless years of hard boundary-spanning work summed up in two beautiful, rheumatoid-riddled hands. Here were those amazing hands cutting greens… for me. My grandma’s hands.
As she carefully cut leaves from each stem, she did it with the precision you might find in an Itamae. She rolled collards like a BOSS. Grandmother Golightly cut greens from their stems, from end to end, without a cutting board. What seemed like a painstaking task to me was — albeit — routine for her.
By now, finally resigned to my task of resident photographer, I snapped photos as instructed. I was a little annoyed because I felt like I didn’t have time to set up my camera. I was convinced these images weren’t going to be as good as they could have been if I had more time.
After the collards are cut, they have to be washed multiple times before they are ready for consumption. No one wants gritty greens. You have to wash collard greens well. They have a tough stem and prominent veins on the back of the leaves. These veiny crevices harbor sand and dirt. Washing greens and washing them well is imperative. It’s safe to assume if you’re eating gritty greens, they weren’t washed well and certainly aren’t grandma-approved.
Cooking collard greens well is tricky. It’s not for the faint of heart or those in a rush. Grandma reminded us that if you don’t cook them long enough, they will be crunchy and tough. If collards aren’t seasoned properly, they’re bitter and earthy. Once the first batch of greens cooked down, she had my mother add more. Mom kept adding greens until the pot was full. 10 bunches of greens might sound like a lot, but it isn’t at all. Collard greens eventually cook down to half the size of your pot once they are finished. Once mom finally got them all in, the pot was covered for an hour at low heat and stirred occasionally.
How do you know when greens are done? Well, I’m sure everyone has a different answer, but for me, it’s when the pot liquor tastes good enough to drink in a glass. I always thought my grandmother’s greens could be served with the pot liquor in a glass on the side. It was just that GOOD.
After listening and taking photos with intention, I realized why it was so important that I capture this moment. It’s because this was one was of the last times I’d witness my grandmother physically making the food she loved for us. I have these imperfect pictures to remember the perfect moment. These were images of so much more than just prep for collard greens. They have become a way to honor, remember and share my grandmother Golightly’s legacy with my children.
My camera settings weren’t perfect. But that didn’t matter. Looking back, I appreciate what matters most. I had the privilege of capturing my grandmother Golightly telling a story with her hands. Her hands were the tools that filled in the blanks. Grandma’s hands were the ones that shined shoes with warmed biscuits on Sundays before church. They were the hands that platted my hair when I refused to let my mother touch it. These were the hands that grabbed and held us tight every time she saw us — and these were the hands that provided for our family and gave us what we needed to build our futures.
Lessons like this aren’t just taught, but they are witnessed. They are experienced. And if you’re lucky, you end up with images to help tell the story.
The antique clock in the photo (above) now serves as a reminder that this was a moment in time that I was blessed to capture. And it’s one I’m honored to say is mine. Thank God I listened to my mother. Thank God for the time I had with my grandmother Golightly.