This is the time of year I used to get anxious after we moved to the midwest during the ’70’s. Never mind Christmas–I could handle the baking, the shopping, the decorating, and the blizzards. It was New Year’s which offered the challenge.
We had moved into our house in the small Wisconsin town on a snowy October day. One of the culture shocks I encountered immediately (besides a snowy October day) was that the grocery stores were very different. Wisconsin had a law that favored mom and pop stores, so there were no supermarket chains. The produce section of our neighborhood grocery store was abysmal. Turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, potatoes, but the only things green were cabbage and iceberg lettuce.
I had grown up eating lots of greens, not because I liked them but because my grandmother insisted they were necessary for survival. My mother offered no sympathy. After all, she’d been lactose intolerant as a baby and had been fed the dreadful, greasy liquid the greens were cooked in. She was not about to indulge my pickiness. I could choose greens or drink the “pot likker.” I usually went with the greens. Luckily, my mother was a greens connoisseur and usually found “cabbage collards” which were not strong or bitter like other choices.
With a history like that, the last thing I thought I’d miss when we’d moved was a green of any type, although it never occurred to me that I’d be unable to find them. I’d always fixed them . . what self-respecting mother would defy her upbringing that way? I’d break up the large leaves and cook them in a pressure cooker , then chop them, crisscrossing two butcher knives until they were almost coleslaw-sized, just like my grandmother had. I did cut back on the alarming amount of bacon grease she’d always added.
Whether it was a case of absence making the heart grow fonder or guilt kicking in, after a few weeks I began searching for greens. I craved collards. There were none. They just didn’t eat greens on the frozen prairie. Once I saw kale growing in a small patch behind a house but snow covered it well before Thanksgiving.
I comforted myself with the knowledge that at least I could fill everyone up on greens New Year’s Day. The whole world ate the same good luck meal on New Year’s Day, right? It never crossed my mind that there was anyplace where people risked not eating greens and black eyed peas on New Years. Who would be so brazenly neglectful as to play Russian roulette with her family’s health and wealth? I waited for the grocery ads to tell me where to find the fresh greens and black eyed peas, another scarcity there.
Since I had previously voiced my concerns to our Southern relatives, my mother-in-law had included a package of dry black-eyed peas in our Christmas gift box, so I had the “cents” part of the meal, but I was becoming nervous about the green wealth. Where were the big bucks going to come from?
Finally I asked a neighbor who had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. New Year’s Day meal? Oyster stew, of course. Someone at church mentioned lutefisk. Pierogis. Holy cow, were these people unenlightened or what??? I hit every grocery store around. Finally, at a store in one of the outlying areas, I found a single, dusty can of turnip greens. Literally dusty. I dared not look at the expiration date.
I served the slimy turnip greens and black-eyed peas at the appropriate time, thus assuring a year of good luck and saving my family from certain ruin. The picture of my family at the table on that first New Year’s Day in Wisconsin shows daughter Boo looking especially grim-faced. Nevertheless, I can assure you that she will be braving the Indiana cold in a couple of weeks, looking for the ingredients for their traditional Southern good luck holiday meal. She doesn’t fool around with fortune either.
When my husband’s parents visited us that summer, my mother-in-law accompanied me to the downtown farmer’s market where corn, beets, carrots, etc. were sold in abundance. No greens. We came to the stall of a grouchy old German farmer I usually tried to avoid. He always tried to foist off his overgrown vegetables on me, scoffing in disgust when I turned down to buy the large yellow squash he held out and selected the smaller ones instead. By his side, as usual, was a basket, large enough to hold at least two bushels of produce. He was cutting off the tops of his root vegetables with his large pocket knife and tossing them into the basket.
My mother-in-law rushed over to the basket and reached in, triumphantly holding aloft a large handful of leafy green material. She called out excitedly in her southern drawl, “Why MAY-ree, look at this! He has plenty of beautiful greens!”
I pointed to the basket and asked the old grouch, “What is that?”
“GAAAAH – bage, “he snapped, and spat into it as he threw in a few carrot tops. Garbage.
That winter, our Christmas care package included emergency rations of two cans of collards.