Each night the hunchback came down the stairs with the air of one who has a grand opinion of himself. He always smelled slightly of turnip greens, as Miss Amelia rubbed him night and morning with pot liquor to give him strength.
Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café
John Smith remarked, “Many hearbes in the spring time there are commonly dispersed throughout the woods, good for brothes and sallets, as Violets, Purslin, Sorrell, etc. Besides many we used whose names we know not.” Undoubtedly the native Americans had names for the wild greens that eventually were adopted for a southerner’s mess of greens. Poke, narrow-leaved dock, creasie greens, lamb’s quarter, dandelion, chickweed, chicory, and pigweed could be gathered practically throughout the year.
Of the cultivated greens, collards are probably the most nutritious, though turnip greens are the most popular throughout the region. Kale and mustard greens have their own advocates; preference varies by region. Tender greens such as spinach are not subjected to the lengthy cooking required by the coarser ones, but the seasonings for all are common: pork fat and red pepper. The well-seasoned broth is known as potlikker; it may be served with the greens, reserved for another meal and poured over corn bread, or served by itself (as every cuisine has its panaceas, southern wisdom strongly recommends potlikker for bladder ailments and hangovers). At the table condiments or garnishes are often offered. Pepper Sauce is added to individual taste. Crisp bacon bits, chopped hard-boiled eggs, green onions, or fresh green cayenne elevate a simple pot of greens into a more complex realm. From the Indian cuisine, the early settlers appropriated a cornmeal dumpling; dropped into the bubbling broth, it makes a nutritious, one-pot meal.
The following recipe is a basic one for all the commonly used southern greens. Cooking time will vary according to the type of green, its maturity, and the time of year. During hot weather, it may be wise to blanch turnip or mustard greens before a final cooking to relieve them of excess bitterness. The pot should simmer, not boil. You are not overcooking a vegetable here, but braising it much in a French manner to slowly coax and develop flavors. It will be instructive for you to taste the mess of greens often, anticipating and savoring the developments.