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Collard greens and cultural preservation: A conversation with Gabrielle E. W. Carter

Carter is headlining the 2022 Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival in St. Petersburg on Feb. 19.
Gabrielle E. W. Carter, a multidisciplinary artist and cultural preservationist, is headlining the 2022 Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival in St. Petersburg on Feb. 19.
Gabrielle E. W. Carter, a multidisciplinary artist and cultural preservationist, is headlining the 2022 Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival in St. Petersburg on Feb. 19. [ DERRICK BEASLEY | Special to the Times ]
Published Feb. 14|Updated Feb. 18

Gabrielle E. W. Carter loves collard greens.

She plants and grows the leafy green vegetable at her family’s garden and homestead in Apex, N.C., where she hosts collaborative dinner popups and archives oral histories as part of her work as a cultural preservationist.

As the headliner for this year’s Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival, held on Feb. 19 at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum (and surrounding streets) in St. Petersburg, Carter will demonstrate how to make one of her favorite dishes featuring the popular brassica: groundnut stew. She’ll also tour local farms and host a private screening of The Seeds We Keep, a film about her work with heirloom seeds.

Carter was recently featured on the Netflix docuseries High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, where she speaks about her work preserving heirloom seeds and documenting her family’s culinary traditions. We caught up with Carter to hear more about her efforts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you currently working on?

My work right now is largely archiving oral histories, specifically around our foodways in this region and my own familial foodways. That has blossomed into different projects, including Tall Grass Food Box, which is a CSA (community supported agriculture share) where we source from Black farmers all over North Carolina. We pay our farmers retail for their produce, or as close to retail as possible, and we try to build equity into our system as much as we can.

I also do recipe development and grow my own (food) with my grandfather and my great-uncles — we keep a family homestead and garden here in Apex ... There are a few different pipelines to get (the food) into the community: People subscribe, or they can purchase a share and we’ll work with different programs to get food out to folks who need it in our community.

The other work is kind of sporadic and all over the place. Some days it looks like starting seeds, keeping seeds, archiving oral histories and some light co-directing on filmmaking. Really, just storytelling, but using various mediums.

How have the community dinners you host evolved over time?

I don’t think it was that deep when I started — it was really just honoring the farmers and the people who grew the food. Learning how to harvest plants and preserve food was really at the center of those original dinners.

I started doing community suppers that transformed into a communion — it was kind of a hybrid dinner party event where I would bring together the people who grew the food that we were eating and the community that they were feeding. That community was made up of artists and activists, rural educators and all types of people who really had the power to impact what our local food economy and system looks like.

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From there, it turned into all these different things. I was able to incorporate the stories that I was hearing from my grandfather and my great-uncles and aunts on this property about the history of this (land) and about this community.

Let’s talk collards. What significance do collard greens play in your current life and work?

(Collard greens) hold a very special place in my heart because they were one of the first things to pull me into the garden.

Growing up, I always thought that collards came from West Africa and always affiliated them with Black food. And then in my adulthood, I learned that these brassicas came from Europe. (Collard greens) were adopted by Black folks in the South, who seasoned them with the meat that they cured in their smokehouses and pan-fried them and drank pot likker as medicine. They really kind of made it their own.

I think when I learned that collards weren’t from Africa, I was sad at first, right? Because immediately I was like, “Oh, but I thought this was a part of my origin story.” But the more I worked with them, planted them, grew them and ate them, the more I learned about their historic importance here in the American South. I acknowledged that this is a part of my origin story. It wasn’t just about the food my ancestors brought with them. It’s about the food that they chose to continue to cultivate.

An order of collard greens is prepared during the 2021 Tampa Bay Collard Green Festiva on May 15, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
An order of collard greens is prepared during the 2021 Tampa Bay Collard Green Festiva on May 15, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Pot likker, the juice left in the bottom of a pot of greens, has several purported medicinal qualities. Can you tell us a little more about the benefits?

It’s especially good for immunity. Collards are full of vitamin C, and you’re just drinking the broth off the collards. It’s also a bone broth, because they usually use pork bones or some sort of pork meat to season the water. I know that my grandfather still to this day drinks pot likker.

The pot likker that I’m doing now is not quite the pot likker of my grandfather’s time. I love to make a sweet, warm pot likker where I boil off the collards or whatever greens I choose. There are so many different varieties of heirloom collards so I’ve really just been going around and seeing what farmers have. Then I dry and dehydrate them so that I can boil and steep the leaves to make tea. I’ll make a blend with toasted peppercorns and juniper berries and grated fresh ginger to create a really warm, delicious — almost chai-like — type of tea.

Do you have a favorite way to prepare collard greens?

Yes, a million. I chose to narrow it down so I could share one at the actual festival, where I’m doing a cooking demonstration. I’ll be making this groundnut stew which I make a few different ways and usually either throw chicken or lamb in the stew to cook down. Recently, I made it with salmon, which was amazing. The base basically stays the same: You are breaking down fresh tomatoes and there’s chunky peanut butter, fresh ground peanuts, onion, celery, carrot and coconut milk. You let that stew and simmer and then add your protein to the broth with the collards. It’s so good. The peanuts just thicken up the stew and give it a little sweetness and the collards just kind of level everything out.

The Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival, with fresh produce and information on everything from plant cultivation to cooking methods, as well as live music and other entertainment, is Feb. 19 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum and surrounding streets in St. Petersburg. More information can be found at tbcgf.org. More information on Gabrielle E. W. Carter and her work can be found on her website at revivaltaste.com.

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