ST. PETERSBURG — It started, as so many things do, over a bet — this one about collard greens.
“He thought he could make greens better than me,” said Samantha Harris, the 39-year-old co-founder of the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival. She was speaking about her co-founder, Boyzell Hosey.
Hosey, 55, deputy editor for photography with the Tampa Bay Times, cooks his greens in a pressure cooker. Harris cooks hers the traditional way, over a period of hours. The pair, who met through church, wanted to share their passion with their community.
So they founded the festival, held Saturday for the third year and drawing hundreds of people to the canopy-covered grounds of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum just off 22nd Street S in St. Petersburg.
Inside the museum, festival-goers who paid to serve as judges ranked collard greens entered into a festival cook-off. Outside the museum, music blared while kids slid down inflatable bouncy slides and attendees walked a closed-off Ninth Avenue S, buying cooked greens and sampling collard green smoothies.
Robert Mann, 66, Bennie Mann, 67, and their daughter, Chontel Mann, 48, sat under a tent, the afternoon sun in their faces, as they munched on some greens. They drove from Riverview to attend the festival for the first time since their recent move from Maryland.
“We’ve got to go, we must go," Chontel Mann recalled saying after seeing the festival on the events app UNATION. “We love collard greens.”
The leafy green was the catalyst, but the event was meant to cultivate community and diversity, as well as promote healthy cooking, Harris and Hosey said. It was also about connecting with African American tradition, which is why it’s in February, Black History Month.
“It’s celebrating our history and what we’ve been able to do with our collard greens," said Harris, a payroll specialist and publisher of faith-based books. "Because at times that’s all we’ve had to eat.”
Harris said she has been struck by how many people of different backgrounds have collard green stories. She said she once met a white man in Walmart who recalled his mother rinsing collard greens in the family washing machine. Harris, who is black, said she has the same memory.
The collard green, she said, "is really a representation of family and unity.”
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The keynote speaker on Saturday was Toni Tipton-Martin, a journalist and author on tour with her recent cookbook, Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking. Speaking on a raised rotunda in the shade behind the museum, she described how African women would prepare bush greens, boiling them and cooking them with palm oil. She said this was likely how the tradition of slow-cooking collards with meat began.
Someone asked Tipton-Martin about preparing collards with kimchi. She said African American cuisine has traditionally been constrained to certain recipes, but she sees room to experiment.
“Now we’re free from the burden that said if we want to eat greens, we must boil them for three hours with a fatty meat,” Tipton-Martin said. “I’m hoping we are free from that encumbrance.”
Hosey explained why he and Harris chose to turn their friendly rivalry into a festival: “We want to show the entire Tampa Bay area that excellence comes out of this community."
So who makes the better greens? Harris said it’s no contest: her Aunt Pinkie from Daytona.
“I’ve been eating her greens for almost 40 years. Everybody loves her greens.”