I just saw the most amazing thing.
There is a long, inauspicious history in America of taking elements of black culture, stripping away some of its blackness and repackaging it as something rarefied, uber expensive and new. Think jazz, Carolina Gold Rice and Elvis’s dance moves.
This time it’s happening to collard greens.
Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, longtime purveyor of fine clothing, housewares and all things preciously priced, is in the food game, too. And this year, among its holiday food offerings are three pounds of mail-order, heat-and-eat collard greens, a serving suitable for eight to 10, for $66 plus $15.50 for shipping and handling.
Yes, you read that right. That would be a total of nigh on $82 for three pounds of collard greens.
Yes, I am referring to the same Eurasian plant which flourished in African climates and became a central part the continent’s cuisine.
According to Michael W. Twitty, the chef, food scholar and PhD historian behind Afroculinaria.com, an officer in the Continental Army described collards as a food that “the Negros” grew in great quantities and so regularly cooked and consumed that in time, white Southerners with European roots and a related affinity for various types of greens also put African American-style collards on their plates.
This would also be the very same collard greens that on Friday retailed, in their raw state, for an average of 86 cents per pound, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) most recent survey of advertised prices at nearly 2,000 major supermarkets across the country. Sure, someone has to cook them, add some seasoning and use energy, which all carry costs. I can’t say for sure how much that cost because Neiman Marcus did not respond to my multiple inquiries. But it’s doubtful that those costs come anywhere close to consuming Neiman Marcus’s roughly 2,458 percent retail markup — before shipping costs.
The collard greens I’ve seen my father, my mother, my aunts, and both my late grandmothers wash at least three times — first for luck, second for cleanliness and finally for love and care — are for sale for $66.
Since childhood I’ve seen collard greens chopped into those rib-free ribbonlike strips, which according to Therese Nelson, chef, founder and culinary creator of the Black Culinary History organization, are known as chiffonade.
Collard greens, long a down-home dish with deep roots but shallow-pocket pricing, are on their way to becoming a prestige food.
Mind you, we are not talking about collard greens an iron, calcium, vitamin C and A rich-vegetable cooked low and slow for hours in a layered flavor broth of ham hock, or less traditionally turkey neck or bacon, with vinegar, a dash of sugar and black pepper in the pot to taste, garnished with red pepper flakes to kick up the heat. That is the way that black Americans have prepared collard greens for centuries.
Black food is not just a collection of cast off ingredients and survival calories full of fat and little else. Collard greens — the way they are traditionally prepared — are proof of that, Nelson says. They are the handiwork of people who learned to measure ingredients precisely in their hands, to create complex flavors in a single pot.
Still, black cuisine and food traditions have been for so long marginalized and devalued, that many professional chefs, including, at one time Nelson, avoided putting them on their high-end restaurant plates. Now simple food, whole food, well-seasoned and flavorful food is on the rise and people like Twitty and Nelson are making black food and its history part of this phenomenon.
There is no doubt that some people who have heard the story of the high-dollar, Neiman Marcus collard greens see it as nothing more that evidence of the Great American Melting Pot, the evolution of the national milieu.
In truth, there is nothing at all wrong with sampling, eating, even adding to your regular menu the foodways of other cultures and nations, as long as the history of that food and respect for the people who figured out how to make it tasty also gets to come along for the ride, Twitty said.
“It is amazing how people devalue the work of home cooks, of black artisans in general. There will be some half-talk about honoring good food and how food is just human fuel, not political,” Twitty said. “But time and time again, we’ve seen this.”
“Someone takes our creations to great acclaim and profits,” Twitty continued, “to a plane where all influence and connection to people of African descent is lost. Honestly, we don’t have time for these Rachel Dolezal greens they are trying to sell when collard greens remain one of the healthiest and lowest-cost options in the soul food reservoir. They and their price need to remain well within reach of peoples already overburdened with hypertension and heart disease.”
In other words, good food is good food. But it’s doesn’t have to come with a disrespect and disregard on the side.
But that seems to be what we are on the verge of here.
When Williams Sonoma wants to sell as nine-inch tiramisu for $65, the marketing folks made sure to mention its origins as a “classic Italian dessert.” If you have $109 to spend on Cajun turkey boudin stuffing for eight to 10, you cannot buy it on Goldbely.com without knowing the difference between Cajun stuffing from the bread-based stuff. But when Neiman Marcus decided to sell collard greens, it flavored the dish with “just the right amount of [unidentified] spices and bacon.”
The dish’s African American origins went missing. The copy writers didn’t even mention the word “Southern.” It’s as if greens as a holiday or big-meal side dish just materialized, or is the brainchild of some intrepid, food pioneer.
That’s why Twitty says that he thinks we need to be on the lookout for all the signs of gentrification to follow.
Soon, there will be mommy bloggers writing about discovering collard greens and just how much their 33.7-month-old likes them and signs in some grocery store near you that read, “Fresh, Georgia-grown Organic Co-Gree $10.99/lbs.”
And, in truth, it seems that the folks at Neiman Marcus know what they are doing. Despite the sarcastic social media response and the mocking tone of most of the stories about their $66 collard greens, Neiman’s collards have been have been sold out since at least Nov. 3.