The State of the Broth

By  |  March 12, 2014
"Blue Heaven" (2001) by David Hilliard "Blue Heaven" (2001) by David Hilliard

Potlikker, the soupy leavings at the bottom of a pot of greens or beans, is now vogue. Perfect Little Bites, a personal chef service in Frederick, Maryland, stirs gin and vermouth with frozen potlikker cubes to chill martinis and infuse the drinks with briny vegetal funk. The restaurant Lower 48, in Denver, fries eggs and tucks them in a bowl of collard green and maitake mushroom potlikker. Travis Grimes at Husk in Charleston serves pork shoulder with crispy belly, smoky butterbeans, rice, and broccoli, swaddled in potlikker broth. When I ate at the Nashville location of that restaurant, the pork came in chops and Morgan McGlone used rapini instead of broccoli, but the potlikker remained.

At their recent summer fest, Southern Soul Barbecue in St. Simons Island, Georgia, served green peanuts boiled in collard green potlikker. Upstate at Five and Ten in Athens, Hugh Acheson occasionally poaches mountain trout in boiled peanut potlikker. Inevitably, Acheson calls the broth nutlikker.

Christopher Kostow, chef at the Michelin 3-star restaurant Meadowood in St. Helena, California, wraps sturgeon fillets in collard greens, buries the bundles in hot embers, and serves the fish with samp grits, diced ham hocks, and a sauce of kudzu root-thickened potlikker. Bon Appétit recently published a recipe for potlikker noodles with mustard greens, ham hocks, and Pecorino cheese, developed by Jason Alley of Comfort in Richmond, Virginia. National Public Radio reported that James Huff of Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Washington, D.C., reduces collard potlikker with garlic, shallots, tomato concasse, and chicken stock, then tosses the reduction with black-eyed peas, and pours the sauce over whole grilled fish.

 

I’d like to believe that my 2002 master’s thesis—The Potlikker Papers: An Explication and Rumination on the Potlikker and Cornpone Debate of 1931 with Illustrative Asides—inspired all that creativity. But the reality is, potlikker has long been a backbone dish in the American South. Today, as modern chefs excavate our culinary history to glean stories and recipes worthy of 21st century interpretation, I don’t wonder how potlikker came to be a vanguard ingredient in so many contemporary kitchens. Instead, I wonder why this run of rediscovery took so long. 

Now that I’ve mentioned my thesis, I might as well tell you about it, because that long-ago debate over potlikker and its proper accompaniment offers insights for today, when so many Americans understand food as a political and social expression of self, freighted with meaning and weighted by politics. The debate began when Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, who had previously shared a Pulitzer for coverage of the Ku Klux Klan, published an Associated Press story about the sale of highway bonds by Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Long credited the sale to a supper of potlikker and cornbread, which he served the lead investor in the syndicate.

In an editor’s note that Harris appended to the story, he questioned Long’s dining habits. Long supposedly dunked his cornbread into potlikker. Harris crumbled his. In response, Long telegrammed Harris. Then Harris telegrammed New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who vacationed at Warm Springs, Georgia, and asked his opinion as an adopted son of the state. And the debate was on.

From mid-February to early March, newspaper readers and newsreel viewers across the nation joined the conversation. Before the debate was over, theConstitution received more than six hundred letters to the editor, including a diatribe about internecine differences from Dudley V. Hadcock of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, a rumination on race by a patient at the Georgia state mental hospital in Milledgeville, and a query from an eighty-five-year-old Confederate veteran who, addressing the relative merits of dunking and crumbling, asked “does it not depend in a great measure if the users have two sets, upper and lower teeth?”

Summoning a gravitas that only earnest graduate students can muster, I argued that the debate illumined tensions between tradition (crumbling) and modernity (dunking). And I pointed out that Harris purposefully drove a wedge between those two camps, while claiming the mantle of tradition. In a telegram to Long, he wrote, “The Constitution, which for more than sixty years has been a patriotic arbiter of all matters appertaining to potlikker, cornpone, dumplings, fried collards, sweet ’tater biscuits and ’simmon beer and ’possum, reiterates its assertion that cornpone is crumbled into the potlikker and not ‘dunked.’” 

The four people who have checked out my thesis since it was deposited at the University of Mississippi library learned that issues of gender, race, and class were also in play. So were matters of diet and nutrition, as well as rekindled Southern patriotism, stirred by World War I, and economic concerns, linked to the Great Depression.

Food, the debate’s rhetoric made clear, not only sustains us, it also serves as a symbol, a way to broadcast who we are and what we believe. That sounds like a 21st century concept of food’s function within society. But the notion was not new in 1931. In The Old Virginia Gentleman and Other Sketches, published in 1910, George Bagby observed, “Drinking train-oil does not necessarily turn a man into an Eskimo, nor does the eating of curry compel one to become a coolie and worship Vishnu or Confucius. Still, there is a connection between diet and the ethnological characteristics of the human races.”

 

Through the years, Southerners have ascribed various ethnological characteristics to potlikker. One of the most persistent beliefs is that the liquid serves as a curative. Usually taken orally, in the manner of a spring tonic, potlikker can be applied topically, too. In her 1951 novel, The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers wrote of the relationship between two characters, Amelia and a man known as the hunchback. “Each night the hunchback came down the stairs with the air of one who has a grand opinion of himself,” she wrote. “He always smelled slightly of turnip greens, as Miss Amelia rubbed him night and morning with pot liquor to give him strength.”

Much of the debate-era writing placed potlikker in a home cooking context. But before I began work on my thesis, I knew potlikker best as a restaurant dish, one I first tasted at Mary Mac’s, the dowager tea room on Ponce de Leon Avenue near downtown Atlanta, famous for potlikker cups and cracklin’ cornbread muffins. As a boy, I ate lunches at Mary Mac’s with my parents, during our monthly pilgrimages to the big city. Later, I wrote a column for this magazine about Lester Maddox, the late governor of Georgia, who began his public career as a segregationist restaurateur and ended it performing in a biracial duo he called The Governor and the Dishwasher. For our interview, Maddox and I met at Mary Mac’s. He had recently weathered an AIDS scare and a bout of prostate cancer, which precipitated his adoption of a macrobiotic diet. But he made an exception that day, ordering baked chicken, dressing, potlikker, and cornbread. The potlikker we sipped wasn’t what it had been in my youth. The broth was pallid. The greens were few. It was hard to conjure how such a liquid could serve as a curative.

When I returned to order a cup last year, the broth was no better, but time at table offered a realization: Taking into account the role Atlanta played in the potlikker debate of 1931, and taking note that few restaurants can link that past with this present, the potlikker at Mary Mac’s might be best appreciated as a museum artifact, a simulacrum of a dish past.

 

Southern chefs are now picking up Mary Mac’s slack. Foremost is Sean Brock, executive chef of the two Husk restaurants, where hunks of pork get frequent baths in potlikker. When I talked to Sean about how and why he uses potlikker, he explained by comparing it to dashi, the Japanese broth made with kelp and preserved bonito. Like potlikker, dashi is rich with umami. Recently, Sean and his Charleston crew began treating collards like the Japanese treat kelp, spraying the greens with Atlantic seawater and drying them in the sun. To approximate the flavor punch of preserved bonito, which the Japanese know as katsuobushi, they ferment a local fish known as lil’ tunny. Sean calls the resulting broth Lowcountry dashi. The name and the ingredient choices remind me of that period when my wife gave up pork for two long years, and I began flavoring our collards with a hit of fermented fish sauce. “I noticed the connection when I was in Japan,” Sean told me. “Dashi is considered an art form there, something that can take a lifetime to master. Dashi is an effort, potlikker just happens.”

Of late, potlikker has been happening a lot. By my count, the umami-rich broth has gotten more press in the past year than it’s gotten in any year since 1931. Soon, potlikkers and nutlikkers and all sorts of dashis will earn their places on menus nationwide. With a little luck, that sort of momentum might lead a fifth reader to pull a copy of The Potlikker Papers from the library shelf and master the history as well as the practice.


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American. 

John T. Edge has served as an Oxford American columnist since 1998. His book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, which Jack Hitt calls “the smartest history of race in America in a generation,” was published in May.