When I was a young single mother living in South Louisiana, I found myself and my two little girls sitting in the back of a Catholic church on Sunday.
I was a little worried about being noticed. The evangelical Baptist church whose threshold I had faithfully and frequently crossed as a young wife had been a sanctuary for my daughters and me, a safe place where people knew us, seemed concerned, offered prayers.
However, when our family fractured, I learned that for that congregation, being in a bad marriage was acceptable and leaving one was not. I found myself unwanted and unwelcome and unable to explain to my daughters why we wouldn’t be returning.
We needed a church home. We needed a community. We needed the ritual of worship to make us feel safe. Those needs eclipsed the shame of divorce. The local Catholic church let us through the doors, so we could often timidly sneak in just as the organ warmed up in order to avoid any awkward questions. We sat in the very back pew.
The girls made a few friends that day, and I rejoiced at finding out that Catholics and Baptists shared a few common hymns. No one asked any of the things I feared.
I was a single mother with two little girls and two jobs, attending college full time. Well-meaning people often gave that unsolicited advice that I should give up my dreams of a degree, drop out of college and return to retail or whatever industry would take me, but this church welcomed families like mine and offered support programs, including a food pantry, to ease the day-to-day struggles.
I had sweet little mouths to feed, and I wanted to set an example for them to set their eyes on their chosen prize and never look back. That meant using the resources available to me, without self-reproach.
As such, a visit to the food pantry became a bit of an event for the three of us. We were not allowed to actually “shop” the pantry, but the volunteers were generous, and we were sent home with grocery bags full of surprises.
Mostly, they were great surprises. Deviled ham! Crunchy peanut butter! Apple juice! We unpacked the groceries with fanfare. We sang and danced and laughed and stocked our empty shelves. If we scored a snack, we’d splurge and enjoy a little in celebration as we inventoried that week’s food.
But with the surprises came some culinary challenges. We learned that powdered milk could be stretched with whole milk and that canned lima beans are better with rice and diced luncheon meat. Almost anything tastes better with a single strip of bacon crumbled into it, and Hamburger Helper could be cooked without hamburger at all. I can almost hear their squeals of laughter over the new name they gave it: “Hominy Helper.”
Occasionally, we’d be graced with a surprise that we didn’t cotton to and that we couldn’t disguise enough to eat. Canned turnip greens were one of those surprises.
It seemed ungracious to me to express displeasure with this charity in any way. I didn’t like canned black-eyed peas, but I turned them into an edible hummuslike dip before I’d ever even heard of hummus. I wanted to set a good example to encourage my children to be the vegetable eaters that I was not, truth be told.
It had worked. The girls ate things that I never knew I’d eat. They actually liked fresh spinach. They requested stewed eggplant. They craved cabbage stewed, boiled, shredded — any way they could eat it. They’d even been the first to try my stewed radish greens.
Unfortunately, where those turnip greens were concerned, I hadn’t set a good example. I’d never liked canned greens, and the girls knew it. I wouldn’t make them eat anything I wouldn’t eat myself, either, so those canned turnip greens presented a conundrum. Within days, I found a solution.
My youngest’s preschool was holding its annual food drive just as our surplus of canned greens arrived. (To us, even one can of canned greens was a surplus.) I taped her name, which she had scratched semi-legibly on a bright yellow construction paper circle, to the bottom of those turnip greens and felt not so bad about sharing our pantry’s gain with someone who might enjoy them more. Or at all. The little one was so proud to contribute to the food drive, too. If felt like we’d done the honorable thing.
Weeks later, when the cupboards became bare again and the date of our scheduled visit, circled in pink on the calendar, arrived, we set out for the food pantry and came home with full bags. We danced and sang about the kitchen, again, as we filled the shelves. We inspected each item. We rejoiced over pudding. We were delighted by peaches and plums and pears and a can of fruit cocktail. We counted our blessings, one can of tuna at a time.
And down at the bottom of the bag of cans, imagine our surprise to find a darned can of turnip greens! A can of turnip greens with a bright yellow construction paper circle taped to its bottom. A can of turnip greens with my daughter’s name on it. The can of turnip greens that had found its way back to us like a runaway pup. Our newest project — turnip greens.
The girls and I would learn how to disguise the less palatable canned greens by straining them well and tucking them into scrambled eggs with “government cheese” that occasionally came through the food pantry, and we’d pat ourselves on the backs and flex our muscles like Popeye at the table for managing to eat them. Buoyed with culinary confidence, we’d then tackle the surplus fresh greens from our neighbor’s backyard garden, and it’s there that we really came into our own.
We learned that the best greens were the freshest, cooked low and slow, flavored with elements of smoke, sweet, sour, salt and spice. It was our formula. On Sundays, we ate them after church with homemade cornbread. I still fix them this way today.
Smothered Sunday Turnip Greens
Greens aren’t complete without pepper vinegar, in my book. You may have seen bottles of bright red or green peppers stuffed into clear vinegar on Southern tables. It seasons the likes of fried okra, fried chicken, black-eyed peas and, lovingly, all kinds of greens. Some pepper vinegar bottles are just that — peppers in vinegar — but you can make them at home by adding a pinch of sugar and a teaspoon of salt to 2 cups boiled vinegar and then pouring the liquid over fresh, well-washed cayenne peppers stuffed into a sterilized jar. Sealed. There. You’re a southerner. At least through supper.
— Maggie C. Perkins
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 onions, halved and sliced vertically
4 to 6 ounces smoked pork, diced
1 head garlic, cloves separated, peeled, lightly smashed
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
8 cups chopped turnip greens
1 quart chicken stock, low sodium
Salt, cracked red pepper, freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a heavy Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and stir frequently until wilted. Add smoked pork, stirring occasionally until pieces are slightly crisped on the edges, about 10 minutes. Add smashed cloves of garlic, tossing with pork occasionally to keep cloves from scorching.
Increase heat to medium-high. Add apple cider vinegar, stirring to deglaze and collect drippings that are stuck to the surface of the pot. Add brown sugar and turnip greens, stirring to mix with pork and vegetables, then add stock to pot, stirring down greens as needed.
Reduce temperature to medium, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until fully wilted, about 30 minutes (or more, if desired). Season liberally, to taste, with salt, cracked red pepper and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Optionally, serve with pepper vinegar (see headnote) at the table. Serves 4.
— Maggie C. Perkins
TIPS ON TURNIP GREENS
- If young turnips are in season, peel and dice and pop them into the pot ahead of their greens. Cook in softly boiling stock until softened, about 10 minutes, then stir in greens. If you like that addition of texture but aren’t crazy about the concentrated turnip flavors combined, try new potatoes instead.
- Rinse greens well. Really well. I draw cold tap water into a pristine clean sink. I swish the greens around in the water, letting debris settle to the bottom. I remove the greens to a colander and drain the sink, rinsing it thoroughly. I repeat the bath three times, then squeeze greens dry in clean cloth toweling or paper towels.
- Smoked pork may take several forms, including whole hocks, necks or chopped ham. I like to splurge on boneless smoked pork hocks to make this meaty enough for a main dish.
- Vegetarian? Try substituting smoke-flavored tempeh to flavor your greens, and a vegetable stock in place of poultry stock. Or season with smoked salt or smoked paprika as an alternative to smoked meat.
- Pot liquor (frequently spelled pot likker) is a Southern term that refers to the cooking liquid left behind when greens are gone. Surely it was the reason cornbread was created. The broth is highly seasoned, with iron and vitamins from the greens leaching into the poaching liquid. Try ladling greens with their broth directly over a piece of cornbread in the bottom of your bowl and you’ll understand its affection.
- Try mixing a variety of greens to provide interesting texture to your dish. Collard greens are a favorite of mine, and my children came to prefer them due to their mild flavor and sturdy texture. Mustard greens are good to mix in, but a little strong on their own for some young palates.