Collard greens are a non-heading cabbage, with leaves that are loosely gathered, rather than tightly bound. Part of the same species as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale, collards probably descended from wild cabbage in Asia and spread to Europe. Greeks and Romans grew kale and collards 2000 years ago, but made no distinction between the two; both were called “coles”. The source of the word collard may be colewort, the Anglo Saxon term for a wild cabbage plant.
In the Americas, the earliest reference to collards dates to the end of the 17th century. They have since become a culinary staple in the American south. Food writer Lonnie Hamilton writes in Saveur Magazine (no. 133) that “the connection to collards is hardwired in black people because the plant helped us survive slavery times. For slaves, meat was often a luxury, rationed out in stingy portions by their owners. Greens, when cooked with a smoked ham hock, took on the richness of the meat. The pork would fall off the bone, its taste imparted to the potlikker – a nutritious broth created by stewing the collards that replenished the body after a long day of labor in the fields. From deprivation came something delicious.”
Today collard greens have a world wide reach. They are sauteed briefly as couve a mineira in Brazil, stewed with ginger, onions and spices as ye’abesha gomen in Ethiopia, served as a coconut milk curry, gulai sayur, in Indonesia, or stewed with Indian spices as Kashmiri haak.