In Praise of Mustard Greens

Yesterday I cooked a mess of mustard greens, my first of the year.  Greens straight from the garden are one of fall’s best treats and for most Southerners that means collards, turnip greens or mustard greens.

Like a lot of our great foods, it seems that these style greens entered the Southern diet through slave culture. Whatever their origin, they’ve been a staple here for a long time.

In our little slice of the South greens are called “salad” (or sallet).  When I was growing up, if you were asked if you wanted some salad, you were being asked if you wanted some turnip greens.  Even now, in our farm supply store the fall greens seeds (which now include kale and spinach) are in a section called “salad seed.”

Turnip greens were the only greens we ate when I was growing up.  I never even tasted collard greens until I moved to Florida as an adult.  When I was a boy, sometimes my mother would send me out to the “salad patch” with a grocery bag (a big paper sack) and instructions to “pick a mess.”  She’d cook them in a big pot, along with a big hunk of fat back.  I’d dowse mine in white vinegar.  Mmmm good.

I don’t recall eating any mustard greens as a child.  Lots of people around here mix them in with turnip greens for flavor so I may have eaten them that way.  In fact it’s common here to sow turnip and mustard greens together for that reason, and when you buy your seed at the store you can have them mix the two together for you if you like.

Back when I was growing up, “salad” was the only thing we planted for the fall.  Traditionally salad is planted on the first full moon in August.  The seed is broadcast and it’s best to mix it with some sand so that it broadcasts more evenly.

When I first started gardening after moving back home I planted turnip greens in mid-August and nothing else. Things have changed.  Now we plant dozens of things for the fall, most of which I had never heard of when I was a boy.  And for the last couple of years I haven’t even bothered planting any turnip greens or mustard greens.  There just wasn’t any interest in them from our customers.  The old days of having a salad patch on the farm are gone, it seems.  Instead of having a large garden of turnip greens we now grow a large garden of kale.

But this year I ran out of seed before running out of garden, so I planted some old mustard seed I had in the remaining space.  It’s coming up beautifully.

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We took a lot of it to the farmers market last week.  We sold out of every type of greens we had, except mustard greens.  We brought almost all of those back home.  In fact, the unwanted leftover greens from the market are what I cooked yesterday.

This week we put mustard greens on the menu we sent out to our customers.  We sold lots of Muruba Santoh, komatsuna and Yukina Savoy.  We sold out of bok choy and tatsoi.   But no one ordered any mustard greens.

Perhaps the glory days of the mustard green are behind it now.  But I’m happy to have had two big helpings of them yesterday and I’m glad to know there’s more where those came from.  I think from now on I’ll just plan on saving a little space for them in my gardens.

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