A Taste of Florida: Soul Food Superstar
From festivals to fashionable tables, collard greens get respect.
It started as a joke.
Boyzell Hosey and Samantha Harris were leading the youth department at Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. In need of a fundraiser, they began selling collard greens in the lobby.
Hosey and his wife, Andrida, had recently bought an electric pressure cooker from HSN, shortening the hours-long process of cooking collards down to less than 30 minutes, so the fundraiser was easy money.
“After every Sunday, the church lobby was smelling like collard greens,” Hosey says with a chuckle. “But people were going crazy over these collard greens.”
The youth group fundraiser was so successful that Hosey and Harris looked into getting a permit to sell greens at the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. That didn’t work out.
“One of us—I don’t remember if it was Sam or myself—one of us jokingly said, ‘Well, let’s just start a collard green festival!’” Hosey recalls.
They both laughed. Then they googled the idea. Soon the two friends and their families were en route to Lithonia, Georgia, to check out the Metro-Atlanta Collard Greens Cultural Festival. They took notes, returned to Florida, and got an accountant.
And that’s how, in 2018, the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival, which celebrates its sixth year on February 18, was born. They also learned that several other Florida cities held similar festivals. There was one in Jacksonville, since discontinued, and Big Mama’s Collard Greens Fest in Sarasota, which happens every October.
Although collards originated in Eurasia, West Africans had long been eating other native leafy greens. In America, their method of seasoning and slow-cooking greens easily translated to collards. The plants grew well in the American South, making them a staple in the gardens that enslaved Africans kept to supplement their meager rations. Black midwives often encouraged expectant mothers to grow collard greens.
“They are very high in fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K and Vitamin A,” notes Wendy Wesley, a St. Petersburg dietician and nutritionist who manages the cooking demonstrations at the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival.
On his blog, culinary historian Michael Twitty stated it more bluntly: “Our ancestors ate Superfoods!,” Twitty wrote in 2016.
For many African Americans and Southern whites alike, a New Year’s Day meal of collard greens, black-eyed peas, pork and cornbread is said to bring good health, wealth and luck. And potlikker—the nutrient-rich liquid left behind after boiling collards—is regarded as liquid gold.
Floridian and Harlem Renaissance-era writer Zora Neale Hurston turned to collards when she needed health, wealth and luck, growing the plants in her garden to save money and help deal with persistent stomach infirmities.
Collard greens and other Southern cuisine appear throughout Hurston’s work, notes Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College outside of Boston and the author of Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food: Recipes, Remedies & Simple Pleasures. Opie’s book includes a simple collard green recipe with only two ingredients: collards and bacon.
A recipe is “a window into so many different things,” Opie says. The simplicity of the recipe reflects that in 1920s Eatonville, where Hurston lived, many African Americans were illiterate. In addition, girls were raised learning to cook by feel and intuition. De-stemming and rinsing collards was a kids’ chore, and it remains so today in many Black households.
“A lot of these things were oral histories passed down and then later put into recipe format,” Opie says. “The assumption is, ‘Everybody knows this, so I don’t need to give a whole lot of detail.’”
A century later, those home cooks and domestic servants probably couldn’t have imagined the many iterations collards would take. Some modern cooks flavor their greens with smoked turkey instead of the traditional ham hocks. Some use no meat at all.
And while slow-cooked collards have long been a staple of Sunday dinners and soul food restaurant menus, in recent years greens have been elevated to superstar status, with a superstar price tag to match.
At celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Restaurant in Miami’s historically Black Overtown neighborhood, you can order a $12 side of “killer collards” seasoned with smoked tomato and crispy shallots. At Southern Contemporary Cuisine in Orlando’s charming Thornton Park District, listed among the small plate options is a $10 plate of “slow cooked creamed collard greens.” And at Grove Market Cafe in Tallahassee, the $10.95 Red Hills Burger comes topped with collard greens, fried okra, bacon and dill pickle rémoulade, served on a brioche bun.
A brioche bun.
In fairness, even folks who like their greens to taste traditional don’t necessarily use traditional cooking methods anymore.
Martha Bireda of Punta Gorda cooks her collards with smoked turkey in an Instant Pot.
“I don’t do it the way my mother did it. My greens are done in 10 minutes,” says Bireda, director of Blanchard House Museum of African-American History and Culture of Charlotte County and a Florida Humanities speaker. “I feel a little guilty.”
Maybe she shouldn’t. After all, greens cooked in an electric pressure cooker and sold in a church lobby are what launched the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival.
In addition to a collard green cook-off, the festival includes urban agriculture workshops, nutrition seminars, group fitness sessions, kids’ activities and more. Held each year in February—peak growing season for the cold-weather vegetable—the daylong festival also features an African-American A-lister from the culinary world. Past headliners have included James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Toni Tipton-Martin; James Beard Award-winning chef and St. Pete native Edouardo Jordan; and Gabrielle E. W. Carter, who was featured in the Netflix docuseries “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.”
Held on the grounds of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in the historically Black neighborhood of South St. Petersburg, the festival has become as much a celebration of community as it is of the vegetables themselves.
Wendy Wesley appreciates the racially diverse crowd that the festival draws.
“A lot of food festivals, you go, you buy the ticket, then you buy a bunch of expensive small plates. But the Collard Green Festival is not really a food festival,” Wesley says. “It’s a community festival that has food.”
That’s the point.
“We also wanted to do something with a level of excellence,” says cofounder Hosey. “That’s important for the community to see—that we can pull off an event, it can be in our neighborhood, and everybody’s welcome.”
Each year, approximately 3,000 people of all ages and races attend the daylong event, and the sponsors keep getting bigger.
And to think, it all started as a joke.
Boyzell Hosey’s Instant Pot
1 32-oz bag of shredded collard greens or 2 16-oz bags of chopped collard greens
2 packets (½ teaspoon total) of Sazón Goya Con Azafran
¼ teaspoon Badia Complete Seasoning or equivalent
1 generous teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 3-oz bag of sun-dried tomatoes, julienne cut
¹/₃ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Optional: 1 tbsp red pepper flakes
- Rinse greens and strain. Place the rinsed greens in a large mixing bowl or aluminum pan large enough to contain all the collards.
- Add the dry seasonings: Sazón, Badia Complete and smoked paprika. Next, add minced garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and red pepper flakes, if using. Add olive oil.
- Thoroughly hand mix until everything is evenly distributed. The greens should all have a light, oily sheen.
- Place greens in an electric pressure cooker of your choice and place the setting on high pressure for 28 minutes. (You can adjust the time according to your desired texture and how your cooker performs. This setting is based on an Instant Pot.) Take care to seal the cooker properly.
- Do not add water or any additional liquid to the cooker. The collards contain enough moisture, and more water might dilute the intense flavor of the collards.
- When the cooker is finished, carefully release the steam pressure valve, open the lid and stir the greens with a big, sturdy spoon.
- Serve on a plate or bowl with some fresh cornbread.
- Cooked collards store nicely for up to a week in the refrigerator and can be reheated in a microwave.
Dalia Colón, an Emmy-Award winning multimedia journalist, produces WUSF Public Media’s food podcast, The Zest. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times and on NPR.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.
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