I tried to cook some collards for Thanksgiving, and though I'd done it before with some success, this batch was so salty they were virtually beyond saving.
I'm not sure what putting your tongue on a salt lick tastes like, but what came out of my pot that day has to be close.
Some of the best collards I've ever tasted came out of Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, so I stopped by there recently to spend a moment or two with Charlotte Jenkins. She would certainly be able to give me some pot-licking pointers.
She's been cooking since she was 9 years old and learned at her mama's elbow. One of nine children living near Awendaw in the Ten-Mile Community, it was understood that everybody would be required to pull their weight. Her brothers often would chop wood and keep the fire burning in the stove. The girls cleaned, sewed and cooked.
There was a serious work ethic in this family. Charlotte's mother cleaned a Charleston home, but still managed to do most of the cooking for her family. When her grandmother was too old to stand, she hoed the garden sitting in a chair.
Charlotte watched and learned her mama's ways in the kitchen. Put the cornbread just close enough to the heat to give it some crunch, but not close enough to burn it. Save that bacon grease to season the collards.
Just a pinch of this, just a dash of that.
"Mama's pots were big," she says. Big enough, it seems, to contain all the do's and don'ts of cooking Gullah.
Pass the chicken, please
Charlotte married Frank Jenkins of Wadmalaw in 1967. Frank died in 2012. He was something of a cook himself who prided himself on his neck bone stew, but he hated grits.
When Frank and Charlotte were young, the standard meal after church was fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and collards. If the preacher also stopped by, that meal might be prepared for 15-20 hungry mouths.
Frank always felt the preacher got the best part of the chicken. In one of Charlotte's cookbooks, Frank said, "... I was a grown man before I knew a chicken had legs and thighs."
These days, Charlotte still comes to the restaurant because "I'm at peace here and it's lonely at home." Most of the business comes from tour buses, group outings and receptions.
She's not fond of thinking about retirement because "things stop working when you slow down." She does admit, though, that she'd like to travel, lecture and do a few more book signings.
Does she still cook? Most of the food in her restaurant is prepared by the people she's trained.
Two items on the menu she can't trust others to get just right are the bread pudding and ox tail.
She still maintains a hands-on approach to make sure both taste "like they're supposed to."
Stir the pot
Charlotte Jenkins is so happy she came along when she did. Nobody had a lot but everybody seemed to have enough.
The grandmother of five is concerned for today's troubled teenagers, though. She despises the generation's dress code, tattoos and attitudes.
Maybe much of that family fabric started to unravel when we quit sitting down to eat together? The stories, the laughter, the sharing of food and family fellowship is a little fractured by the TV trays and microwave dinners. Some of that can be briefly recaptured around the holidays if we make or take the time.
Charlotte Jenkins doesn't believe she makes soul food, but food that's good for the soul. That sounds and tastes just about right.
Oh, and by the way, thanks to some of her life experience and recipe advice, I'm ready to tackle another batch of collards.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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