Today, my kids and I are reading about Martin Luther King, Jr., so we’ve cooked up some African-American dishes to go with our studies: greens and beans! There are LOTS of African-American dishes that we love, esp. pickled shrimp, crab boil, and ham biscuits, but we are also moving in a few weeks so I’ve limited myself to what can be prepared using up things in my stash.
My recipe is a modernized version of boiled greens, and it’s simple and quick! Chop up some kale, or collards, or mustard greens, and let soak for a few minutes in a pot or other large container of cold water. Agitate the water every once in a while to get rid of any grit that may be clinging to the leaves. While the greens are soaking, fry up a bit of chopped bacon (I used some natural bacon here, no nitrites, etc.), until nice and crisp. Remove bacon from skillet using a slotted spoon and let drain on paper towels. Discard the fat except for a tablespoon or so. Lift the greens out of their soaking water, carefully so you don’t disturb the sand and grit that has sunk to the bottom of the pot. Cook in the bacon fat, just until cooked through but still vibrantly green. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve hot, with the crisp bacon sprinkled on top.
The beans are easy to prepare as well. I don’t know what the connections are between the famous Boston baked beans and Southern beans but I do know this — the combination of tomato-molasses-mustard is brilliant. My hubby could have this for breakfast every single day! Take some beans. If they’re dried, then you’ll have to pre-cook them; soak them first so they soften a bit, then boil/simmer in water for a couple of hours — some cooks like doing it overnight in a crockpot/slow cooker, until they’re tender. Drain, then return to the pot, adding molasses, brown sugar, some ketchup, a bunch of chopped onions, more tomatoes in some form or other like tomato sauce or pureed tomatoes, ground mustard, salt and freshly ground black pepper, some hot sauce if you like. I prefer a touch of red wine vinegar as well, to cut the sweetness. Some cooks use corn syrup as an additional sweetener but I’ll leave that up to you. Cook on the stovetop, or in the oven in a casserole or crock made for this purpose — I *love* bean pots. Of course, the not-so-secret ingredient is bacon or salt pork, which you’ve pre-cooked so the fat renders — you add this to the pot along with the other flavorings, where it adds richness to the dish.
I have two favorite African-American cookbooks, one is the famous Abby Fisher’s, and the other is The Welcome Table by Jessica Harris, wherein she writes:
Food is so much a part of our lives that at times it seems as though a Supreme Being created all African-Americans from a favorite recipe. There was a cupful of cornmeal to link us with Native Americans, a rounded tablespoon of biscuit dough for Southern gentility, a mess of greens and a dozen okra pods for our African roots, and a good measure of molasses to recall the tribulations of slavery. [snip] In short, we’ve created a culinary universe: one where an ample grandmother presides over a kitchen in which the pungent aroma of greens mixes with the molasses perfume of pralines and the bubbling from a big iron gumbo pot punctuates her soft humming. This is a universe where Aunt Jemima takes off her kerchief and sits down at the table; Uncle Ben bow his head and blesses the food; and Rastus, the Cream of Wheat man, tells tall tales over a taste of whiskey. Here the warmth of the kitchen is tempered by both the formality of the dining room and the love of a family that spans generations and crosses bloodlines. With the improvisational genius that gave the world jazz, we have cooked our way into the hearts, minds, and stomachs of a country.
No, MLK Jr’s dream may not have been fully realized yet, but our pots of greens and beans are tangible reminders of the work that he, along with Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and many others, began. My personal hope is that they will continue to inspire us in our journey too.