RALEIGH, N.C. — For me growing up, New Year’s Day supper was always scary.
Imagine if you can, and I’m pretty certain some of you have had this experience, that along with the bowls of black-eyed peas and collard greens was a platter that proudly held, not a ham or turkey, but a hog jowl in all its glory, complete with the hog’s teeth, served on the fine china and in the dining room.
Think about that for a moment. Visualize it. Teeth on china to start the new year.
I laugh about it now, but it also evokes memories of the pure joy Mom and Dad had when they would tear into that beastly looking thing. My folks were part of that group of hardscrabble, Depression-era rural farmers, and although they had become city folks, I really think that to them, this meal represented survival in tough times.
It was a meal that reminded them that wealth and health could be fleeting. The jowl was one recipe I never asked my mother for, although I wish now that I had done so.
One New Year’s Day after my freshman year at N.C. State, I invited my citified girlfriend to that supper. My mother hollered at me for doing so: “You know what we eat, and I’m not changing a thing just because you met a girl! She can eat what we eat or just go hungry!”
Maybe she was trying to scare the girl away. Mothers can be like that about their only son.
After three days of complaining, she finally added fried chicken to the menu, much to my relief.
What changed my folks’ opinion of this woman was that she jumped into the bowl of collards as if she would never get them again. My mother softened, and Dad flirted. Good thing too, because I married that woman. Did the collards seal the deal?
Eastern North Carolina is the “collard belt” of the country. If you get much past Greensboro, mustard and turnips take center stage, but you cook them just the same way.
It took me years to finally get all of Mama’s tricks for collards out of her. First, use collards that have been “frost-bitten.” You’ll find those at a farmers market and most independent grocers. The most important thing is “shining the greens.” That is the step below where you skim the fat off the “pot likker” and stir it back into the collards. Do not skip this step.
There will be pork on my table Jan. 1, but no jowl, and black-eyed peas for luck and collards for wealth in the new year.
How about you? Do you really want to tempt faith and tradition?