Collard greens for Pope

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

The collard leaf is dark green with a lighter green stem and veins branching off like the life giving veins of a placenta. It smells like the fields and the thick stem has to be separated from the rest of the leaf. I imagined his great grandmother and his grandmother picking these directly from the fields in the heat of the Deep South. The upper surface of the leaf is a dark waxy green to collect the heat from the sun and allow the rain to run to the roots. The underside is a lighter green and has a rougher texture. These were the parts the plantation owners threw away. Collard greens and oxtails, all discarded and what was left is what they had to survive on.

I wanted him to remember his childhood and I wanted him to remember his grandmother. This gaunt and cachectic man, his blackness somehow pale in his terminal cancer, unshaven as that no longer mattered. I wanted him to remember the screen door banging shut behind him on a sweltering summer day as he ran out to play in the streets of his Chicago neighborhood. All of the kids would be poor, all of them would be coming home to collard greens and ham hocks, all of them dreaming of a better life and far too few of them making it.

I don’t imagine his grandmother had access to the rack of knives I have in our kitchen, so I used a single knife to prepare the entire meal. It’s been said the secret to cooking is love and one of the other secrets I’ve discovered is time. I do the cooking in our house because I think about my grandmother when I cook and I believe taking a long time to cook is what truly makes food better. She would spend much of the day cooking on her black cast iron cook stove and I thought about Pope’s grandmother and maybe even her grandmother. How long was it since the slave trade first brought them here? Every one of them would be hoping for their children and their grandchildren to have a better life, to make a difference for others and to bring some recognition to the family name.

Pope has done this as a college professor and has guided and shaped thousands of young lives. As I rolled the collard leaves and cut them into strips, I wondered how many students he has mentored, how many he has made look at the world differently, how many who have known their first black person in him?

Are they following the example he set?

I started the bacon when I first started thawing the turkey stock for cooking the greens. Whenever we have chicken or turkey, I make stock from what is left and I simmer it all day long with celery and onions, then I freeze it for cooking later. I used all of it for this meal. I use smoked ham shanks when I cook collard greens and I only use those directly from a smokehouse.

Fifteen years ago my wife Ivy found her family in Florida. Her father was from the Bahamas and was only a generation or so removed from slavery. Her brother Stormy was the first one of her siblings we met and he made greens for us the way he was taught. The old way is to cook them for hours and hours with some bacon and smoked pork of some kind and add a little bit of vinegar and a little bit of sugar. When we travel to Tampa to visit Ivy’s family, Stormy wants us to go to the buffet and I want to go to the soul food places.

I slow cooked ribs in a roaster with onions and it was 7 PM by the time everything was done. I called the nursing home and they brought Pope a portable phone. I visited him the day before and he was frail and thin and told me almost anything he ate made him sick and food just didn’t appeal to him.

“What did you have for dinner?”

“Not much. I had an egg salad sandwich, ate half of that. I had coffee…didn’t drink it. Tea…didn’t drink it. Milk…didn’t drink it. Oh, and they brought beets. I ate one beet. Why?”

“I’ve been thinking about you all day. I made collard greens and barbecued ribs. I made the greens the old way, the way Ivy’s brother in Florida showed me. I’ve been cooking them all day and I know it’s late. We can bring them tomorrow if that’s OK.”

“Bring them tonight!”

Sandra was with him when we finally got to the nursing home. We had the greens and the barbecued ribs in two separate baking dishes and we brought 5 paper bowls with forks and knives.

Pope was in bed. His prostate cancer had spread to his spine and was pushing on his spinal cord and he had lost control of his legs. He could weakly move them, but wasn’t able to sit up. I served him first, then Sandra, then Sandra’s cousin Tom, then my wife Ivy and our son Jake. I took what was left in the baking dishes and we ate our simple meal together.

We ate and talked and Pope finally took a bite of the greens. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes and said, “My mother and my grandmother were the cooks in our house when I was growing up and they made almost everything.” He ate almost half of the greens in his bowl and had a few bites of the ribs. His reaction to that single first bite was the entire reason for our visit.

We stayed for a long time and Ivy sat next to the bed and held his hand and I sat and held Sandra’s hand. Pope was one of the first people to welcome Ivy when she started working at the University almost 18 years ago and our families have been bonded ever since.
I tried to call during the week and only got a message phone and the nursing home couldn’t give me any information.

Friday after work I started making chicken stock and I cut up onions and celery and carrots with some black pepper and I cooked it until midnight.  Earlier I sorted a package of dried great northern beans, then I rinsed them and soaked them. I put pork hocks and a ham bone into the crock-pot and poured in the beans and cooked them for twelve hours before I felt they were ready.

I buttered some bread and took the soup and the bread to the nursing home. Sandra was there and their niece Pam was there with Pope. He had been mostly unresponsive and sleeping for the last three days and hadn’t eaten or drank anything in that time and now was in full hospice care. Off and on Pam would lovingly swab his lips with a damp sponge on a stick. He opened his eyes and smiled briefly when I told him I was there and he slept while Sandra and Pam told stories as we visited. He hardly moved and his breathing was quiet and steady.

I kissed him on the forehead as I left and told him he was a good man. He smiled briefly and we both knew this was the last time we would meet here. Soul food nourishes and replenishes the soul. The soup and the greens the week before were very simple foods and nothing fancy, but were what he grew up with and I wanted him to meet his grandmother again as a young boy running out of the house on a hot summer day. I gave the soup to Sandra as her soul is an extension of his.

Sleep easy and travel well, my friend. You made a difference and your students and colleagues love and respect you.

Give my grandmother a hug when you get there.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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