Monthly Archives: December 2015

Collards: A Southern Superstition

The New Year means resolutions for most of the country. But in the South, it also means it’s time to cook collards. Eating collards and black eye peas on New Year’s Day is a southern tradition, or really a superstition.

Collards represent cash, and black eye peas represent cents. If you eat both on New Year’s Day, you’ll make lots of money in the upcoming year, or so the superstition goes. And just so you’re prepared to make lots of money in the New Year, below is my mom’s recipe for cooking collards, with some photos of her collards at Christmas. She cooks them like my grandma used to, frying them after boiling them.

Have a Happy New Year and don’t forget to eat your collards and black eye peas!

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Here’s my mom’s recipe that she learned from my grandma:

  1. Cut the leaf off of the main vein that runs through the leaf. They seem to cook better if I have a large amount of leaves to cook at one time.
  2. If any of the little veins that runs through the leaf is of any size, I cut the leaf from around those also.
  3. Once I have my leaves, I wash them several times.
  4. Then using a large large pot, I boil the leaves until they get really soft (I usually cook for an hour or so)
  5. Then drain the leaves good to get rid of excess water.
  6. Then with my hand chopper, I chop the leaves up really small.
  7. Then in a large frying pan I put oil (enough to cover the pan but not deep).
  8. Place collards in pan to begin cooking process.
  9. Sprinkle some sugar over the collards and stir.
  10. Once they start cooking I turn heat down and cover with a lid. Keep checking. Sometimes I keep adding a little oil and sugar.

Do not let them dry out when cooking (Keep moist with oil). I let them cook slow for a while. Many people do not add the sugar, but that is the way we like them.

 

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Collards in the frying pan, ready to eat.

Dreaming of a Cold Christmas

This has been a year of extreme weather—a summer of severe drought, then the wettest November on record, and now the second warmest December on record. On a farm, weather is always simultaneously helping or hurting something. The severe drought this summer wasn’t very good for growing field crops, but vegetable producers (who nearly all irrigate) did alright. Lack of rain means less disease pressure for them.

The oddly warm weather we’re having this Christmas means some strange things are happening here on our little farm. First, we have some strawberry plants that are already blooming. They aren’t supposed to bloom till early spring.

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Strawberry in bloom on December, 20th

It’s almost January, and the apple trees are still clinging to their leaves. The oats and crimson clover are almost a foot high.

I tried to take a photo of the bees entering their hive, but they all turned out blurry. This time of year, bees would typically be huddled inside the hive to stay warm and conserve energy. No need to do that this year. Some were actually bringing in orange pollen.

All this warm weather is nice for a few days, but it can really mess things up if it persists. Instead of going dormant to survive winter, things will start ramping up for spring. Bees will begin using more energy and eating their stored honey. Strawberries will bloom in earnest. Then a cold snap will arrive and slaughter everything. So even if I don’t particularly like cold weather (I’d rather be hot than cold), I’m still dreaming of a cold Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…

From Brambles and Bradford Pears to Strawberries and Apples

We’ve owned our little 20-acre farm for about two years now.  One of the first items on our to-do list after we purchased the farm from Natalie’s grandparents was to plant some trees—apple trees. We had a good spot for a potential orchard, an unused quarter-acre patch of land that was grown up in brambles and wild Bradford pears. Wild Bradford pears are vengeful creatures, with spiny thorns capable of puncturing a tractor tire. In the spring of 2014, we carefully cleared the pear trees, burnt off the weeds and brambles, and then plowed the patch.

After that, we planted a summer cover crop of buckwheat (which the bees loved) and a fall cover crop of crimson clover.

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The cover crop of buckwheat

We also planted the apple trees in the fall, in November 2014. We planted 12 Winesap, 12 Arkansas Black, 7 Grimes Golden, and 1 Lowry.  These are all heirloom varieties, which we ordered from Century Farm Orchard in Reidsville, NC. The owner, David Vernon, was very helpful. Both the Arkansas Black and Winesap are nearly sterile, so he recommended the Grimes Golden for pollination. We ordered one tree of the Lowry variety for Natalie’s poppaw’s—his name is Lowry.

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You can barely see the apple trees sticking out above the thick layer of crimson clover in spring 2015

The trees are grafted on M 111 rootstock, so they’ll be about 15 feet tall when they’re full grown. We planted them with 20 feet in between trees.  It will take four to five years till they produce an apple. With the extreme drought this past summer, it may take longer. Thankfully, we didn’t lose a tree, but several failed to put on much growth this first year.

So what do we do for four, five, or six years? Well, we could just wait. But’s that no fun.  Hmmm. I’ve got it—let’s plant strawberries. Yep, that’s what we did: we planted 1,200 strawberry plants between the rows of the apple trees this fall.

Right now, the strawberry plants are under row covers, more to protect them from deer than cold weather. But so far they seem to be doing pretty good. If all goes well (and there’s a lot that could go wrong), we’ll have strawberries in four or five months—and apples in four of five years.

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Rows of apple trees and strawberries alternate–the strawberries are under the white row covers in this photo

Country Ham Cutting

Country ham is a staple food in our family – you can eat it on a biscuit, with grits, smothered in red-eye gravy….the options are endless. These days, most people get their country ham from the grocery store – nicely shrink wrapped in plastic. My Poppaw remembers when you just cut it directly off the ham hanging in the smoke house . Back then, most people cured their own meat at home, and his family continued to hang hams until the mid-1960’s when the weather became too unpredictable to continue doing it.

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Last January when we had our first pigs butchered, we decided to try curing our own ham in the smoke house my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents had used for nearly a century. It was a cold winter with the polar vortex spiraling across the South, and Poppaw felt like the weather would hold out long enough so that we wouldn’t loose the ham.

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First, we packed the ham in a layer of salt, brown sugar, and pepper. We set the ham in a homemade curing box with a slatted bottom, which allowed the moisture to drain. After 3 months, we cleaned off the salt, wrapped it in butcher paper, and hung it in an old pillow case in the smoke house.

And that’s where it stayed till last week when we finally cut into it.

If I am honest, I had reservations about what this ham would be like. I mean, how many people do you know that eat ham out of a pillow case? Despite all, I decided to trust the process…and I am glad that I did.

It was the best ham I had ever had (and I’ve had a lot of ham). Quite frankly, my first thought was that I had truly never had country ham until that very moment in my life. Matter of fact – we should all only ever eat pillow case ham for the rest of our lives.

We ate the fully cured pieces straight off the ham and pan fried the rest…which then lead to making biscuits and red-eye gravy.

Sometimes, on the farm we’ll try doing something the old way and it either won’t work or the new way is faster. While buying country ham from the grocery store is certainly faster….it isn’t better. So the next time that the stars align and we have a polar vortex and a ham on hand…we’ll be whipping out the curing box and an old pillow case. After all, you can’t beat this tried and true method of curing meat!

A Collard Peddler

Oh, if I knew then what I know now. Growing up, I had a strong dislike for collards, though I probably never tasted them until I was an adult. That smell, that sulfur stench, of collards boiling was enough cause for me to turn up my nose. This year I planted 1,000 collards, a lot for someone who once despised the things. Either my culinary tastes have improved or my olfactory senses have declined. Natalie says I can’t smell anything.

Earlier this year, I decided to become a collard peddler. I took my inspiration from a man who sold collards from the back of his pickup truck at an Exxon Station in my hometown of Hamlet. He did quite the business. Every year, during the fall and winter, he would be back at that gas station, selling collards. He sold the collards whole, not in bundles or bags. Some customers inspected the collards, examining each leaf, as if at a tobacco auction, before settling on the collard they wanted to purchase.

So far the collard business has been pretty successful, although I believe they aren’t quite as popular here in the western part of the state. It seems like a lot people here grew up eating turnip greens instead. I planted two varieties of collards: Georgia Southern and Flash. Georgia Southern is an heirloom variety with huge, crinkly leaves. Flash is hybrid that grows faster, albeit with a smaller size overall, and produces smooth, bluish-green leaves. Both taste the same, like collards.

I grew my own transplants from seed, which I planted into black biodegradable plastic mulch. This was my first time growing anything in plastic, and I’m impressed so far. The time it saves in weeding outweighs the cost. I planted the collards in double row beds, with 12 inches between rows and about 14 inches between plants in the row. I have a drip-line between the two rows. I strip-till the beds, living enough room to get a tractor between each bed. The ground between the beds is left in white clover sod.

I like the strip-till system. Before, we used to disc the whole garden, and anytime it rained, a muddy mess lingered. After heavy rains, much of the garden stood in water. Now with the clover aisles between each bed we can easily access the collards. The sod helps water infiltrate the ground. This has been the wettest November on record, with over 10 inches or rain this month, and standing water has only been a problem in tire tracks. Of course, the problem with the strip-till system is that it isn’t nearly as efficient with space. With so much ground left in sod, you’re only planting about half of what you could with traditional rows.

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Strip-till rows

Collards are easy to grow, but pests are tough on them. Caterpillars and grasshoppers have been a pain. I had intentions of cutting my collards whole, like the collard man at the gas station, and selling them that way. Instead, I’ve resorted to picking good leaves and bundling them, which adds more labor. I tried spraying some organic pesticides (Bt, neem oil, and sulfur), but they didn’t seem to faze the pests. The good thing about not cutting the plants is that I can continuously harvest more leaves as they grow. After the hard freeze, pests haven’t been as bad. So far deer have left my collards alone. I can tell where they’ve been browsing in the clover aisles, but apparently the deer herd here doesn’t like collards. Maybe for deer it’s an acquired taste, as well.