Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

Collards in North Carolina

Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

Collards in North Carolina

Article excerpt

The collard plant has flourished as an important garden food crop in the U.S. South since the early nineteenth century because it is able to endure hot summers and still thrive in winter, when it is harvested and consumed as greens. The uneven geographic pattern of collard production in North Carolina calls into question claims that the collard is a ubiquitous Southern food crop. It is still the dominant winter garden crop on the North Carolina Coastal Plain, but fewer patches are being planted and consumption of collards is waning, especially among young people. Commercial collard production is increasing to satisfy the demand of older folk.

KEY WORDS: collards, gardens, food, North Carolina


The collard patch has been a common element of the fall and winter landscape in parts of the U.S. South since before the Civil War. The collard, Brassica oleracea, var. acephala, is grown in the region for its greens, produced by cooking the leaves of the plant (Fig. 1). Sometimes called a headless cabbage, the collard has advantages over cabbage in the South in that it is better able to endure hot summers, while at the same time it is able to grow and thrive in winter at least as well as cabbage. The production and consumption of collards have been so closely associated with the South that one writer went so far as to state that collard greens "probably more than any other food, delineate the boundaries of the Mason-Dixon line" (Albright 1989, 649). The association of collards with southern culture is reflected in regional novels, poetry, song lyrics, and local festival themes.


The consumption of collard greens has traditionally played a vital dietary role in winter in the South, where food resources, especially in poor rural areas, were meager. Collard greens are rich in Vitamin A, and also provide significant amounts of Vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Collards have especially been lauded by historians for contributions made to food supply in the South during the crises of the Civil War and the Great Depression.

Many comments about the collard in the South, however, could be labeled as assertions. Much remains to be learned about the geography of collard production because little field research has been devoted to describing the geography of collard production, and census data have not been uniformly collected for garden crops. In addition, research on both the cultural history of the collard and its development in the South is incomplete. In this paper, we trace the development of collards in the U.S. South, delineate the geography of collard production in North Carolina, and describe and assess the changing status of the plant in that state.

The paucity of research on the collard as a food crop is not surprising because, until recently, geographers had shown little enthusiasm for the study of food in general. Cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky (1985, 51) lamented that the study of foodways was "a sadly neglected topic," and blamed that research omission on the belief by scholars that food was not a worthwhile subject for scientific study. Geographers have, however, gradually developed a body of work on food consumption patterns. Some of the more insightful studies have shown that foodways are central to the meaning of place (Pillsbury 1990; de Wit 1992; Jakle 1999), and play a key role in defining places and regions (Hilliard 1972; Shortridge and Shortridge 1989, 1995; Pillsbury 1998). Others have shown that food can help maintain boundaries and linkages in and through social and cultural space (Arce and Marsden 1993; Cook and Craig 1996; Bell and Valentine 1997; Pillsbury 1998). For example, the symbolic status of a food such as collards can be used to define people and places socially. In Flannery O'Conner's (1988) short story, "A Stroke of Fortune," a Southern woman who aspires to join the middle class is disgusted at her brother for enjoying collards. …

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