When I was fourteen, we moved to the States. My mother was offered a job in Washington, DC, and so we decamped from suburban Melbourne to Arlington, Virginia. We very quickly learned that we lived in the South; and as such we were duly introduced to barbecue, sweet potato, and chitlins (aka chitterlings). (As a sidenote, chitlins are pig intestines. What more can I say? Well, they stink. They made even my extremely dignified and polite mother gag at the table. Every recipe includes stringent cleaning instructions and warnings about bacteria. And even afficionados describe their flavour as ‘interesting’. Surprisingly, the Brunswick IGA has started stocking fried chitlins – a high protein on-the-run snack food, apparently – so if you live in the northern suburbs of Melbourne and you need some protein, now you know where to go.)
What else did we learn? We discovered that fruit salad was not a dessert. When we brought it to potlucks, we were gently chided for failing to bring something sweet, as requested, and our ‘salad’ was placed on the salad table, to be eaten with the meat. As mind-boggling as that seemed to us – who eats fruit salad with their main course? –, next to the other ‘vegetable’ offerings – a congealed salad, perhaps, of sweet Jell-O, in which grated carrot, dried coconut and mini-marshmallows were suspended, or sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows and brown sugar – our modest offering of chopped bananas and grapes looked positively savoury.
Yet there was good food, too, even if it was hard to come by. I remember spicy Cajun catfish; pulled pork and beans; apples ciders hard and soft; deep fried sweet Georgia onions; and the mountains of greens in traditional African American cooking. But these foods were never cooked in our milieu; we had to seek them out. Now I wonder why. Was the food disdained – in favour of Jell-O salads, I might add – because it had been the food of poor blacks, and lingering racism made such food unpalatable? Or was it simply that processed food had won out in a frantically busy society? After all, down home cooking does require someone to actually be home and puttering around the kitchen.
Leaving the mysteries of American food unresolved, let me tell you about this dish. One of my favourite southern foods is bitter greens (edible weeds) cooked down with a little pork: full of flavour, vitamins, and minerals. And at this time of year, when rains are heavy after a long hot summer and the dandelions are shooting up everywhere, bitter greens are in plentiful supply. Now, I have a lovely book of African-American cooking, chock full of family stories and photographs, which includes a recipe for a wilted dandelion leaf salad. But in this chilly weather I want to eat something a bit warmer, so I have turned it into a dish of lightly cooked greens, and serve it alongside hunks of sweet potato cornbread. ‘This,’ I announce to my sceptical children, ‘is part of my personal heritage!’. I am sorry to say they eat only a few greens and then go fishing for the bacon; but more mature people find it delicious. Eaten with cornpone, it forms a balanced meal with complex flavours – sweet, salt, sharp, mellow – which deeply satisfy.
Dandelion Greens with Bacon
- 200g fresh dandelion greens, picked either from your garden or from a local park; if the latter, wash especially well. The inside leaves are more tender in both flavour and texture, but you can also eat unblemished fresh (lighter green) outside leaves if you like a bit of a kick to your greens.
Wash the dandelion leaves very well, dislodging any dirt or small insects. Chop roughly but do not spin dry, as you need a little moisture clinging to the leaves when they cook.
Warm the olive oil in a wide frying pan, then lay the bacon rashers in the pan. Cook them over medium heat, pushing and turning them from time to time, until they have passed from flaccid to crispy. Remove the bacon to a board (and drain on a scrumpled paper bag if you’re squeamish about eating too much pig fat).
Peel the onion, halve from stem to stern, and slice into thin half-moons. Throw the onion into the pan and cook over a brisk heat until shiny and just starting to soften; you want your onions juicy here.
While the onion is cooking, break, tear or chop the bacon into little pieces about half a centimetre square. Think bacon bits, but big, rough and homemade, and with no artificial colours or flavours.
When the onion has softened, throw the dandelion greens into the pan. Clap on the lid, and cook for a few minutes or until the greens are wilted. Remove the greens with a slotted spoon and combine them with the bacon. Turn up the heat, and add the brown sugar and apple cider vinegar to the pan. Bubble away for a minute or two, scraping madly at all the delicious little brown bits stuck to the bottom, then pour this thick syrup over the greens. Mix gently, and serve.
Adapted from a recipe in the currently out-of-print The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking by Jessica B Harris. A recipe for a delicious, pudding-y gluten free sweet potato corn bread (cornpone) can be found in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook's Companion; click here for the recipe.
(Backyard: dandelion greens. Gippsland: some reasonably happy pig. Grampians: olive oil. Local veggie box: red onion. NSW: apple cider vinegar. Queensland: brown sugar.)