With kale on the out, a look at the next edible miracle

Collards are the new kale.

That's right. You read it here first.

You read it here first unless, that is, you read it on the side of one of the latest Whole Foods shopping bags, which is where I discovered this shocking news the other day.

Kale has been so hot the past few years that in New York, where a trend's not a trend unless it's taken to excess, kale cultists have been known to overdose, suffering digestive maladies too gross to describe here.

But all fads eventually lose their mojo, and so, just when you'd almost convinced yourself you liked kale salad, kale has been elbowed off the food throne by the lowly collard green.

Every few years brings us a new edible miracle, the food that will keep us from getting sick, getting fat, getting old. But I never would have put my money on collard greens.

I say this as a native Southerner who grew up on collards. In the Georgia of my childhood, everybody ate them, or at least everybody served them. They were nutritious, but I don't think many people thought about that. Collards were, above all, cheap.

Ours came cooked with a big dollop of grease from the coffee can that sat on the stove; grease was culled after bacon or Spam was fried, then poured into the can where it congealed and sat at the ready to flavor the otherwise boring collards.

I always thought of collard greens as a Southern food, but when I got to Chicago, the only place I saw them served was in restaurants that catered to African-Americans.

One of those restaurants was the legendary Edna's on West Madison Street, which three years ago reopened as Ruby's. On Tuesday, still reeling from the fact that collards are the new kale, I went to talk collard greens with Ruby's owner Henry Henderson.

"They've always been my kale," Henderson said.

Henderson moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1969. He worked for 36 years as a produce man, and for most of those years delivered vegetables to Edna Stewart, the Tennessee sharecropper's daughter who turned her West Side restaurant into a popular place to eat and talk politics.

After she died in 2010, he opened a restaurant in her old space. Most of Edna's staff stayed. So did the collard greens.

What's the secret of good collards?

"I'm sorry," Henderson said, pleasantly. "I don't want everybody to start getting the recipe."

He did note that Ruby's, which serves collards six days a week but switches to turnip and mustard greens on Sundays, doesn't use meat products to flavor its greens.

So why do they taste so good?

And they did taste good. I had a dish, served up from the food bar with a cornbread muffin.

Henderson would say only this much: Cook them slowly. Ninety minutes. Don't overcook them or they'll lose their flavor.

All sorts of people come to Ruby's for the collard greens, he said.

"Thirty-nine choir members from Spain," he said. "I don't know how they knew about the collard greens, but they were excited about the collard greens."

The person who cooks the collard greens at Ruby's is Jonell Powell, who started working at Edna's 35 years ago, at the age of 17. She remembers picking collards as a child in the fields of Alabama and learning to cook them, with salt pork, when she was 11.

I tried to wheedle the secret to collard greens out of her. She told me a few things, but out of respect, I won't say what. Except that a pinch of sugar won't hurt.

Now that collards are the new kale, we're sure to see them in many incarnations. One recipe on the Whole Foods website is for a penne salad made with collards, Kalamata olives and feta cheese.

But in the coming collard craze, I hope the old-fashioned collards won't get lost.

As I walked out of Ruby's, an elderly woman, eating alone, said to no one in particular, "Mmm, those greens are good."

But however good they are, the craze won't last. Before long, something else will be the new collards.

Okra, anyone?

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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