The dish known as ‘potlikker greens’ is often presented as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, and as a clever innovation of the slaves. To make the dish, strong leafy greens (often collard greens) are cooked slowly with meat such as bacon or a ham hock. The pot liquor left over after the greens have been eaten is then ‘sopped up’ using cornbread. The dish remains popular within both Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’, and certainly stands out as having a particularly strong regional identity. However, when we dig deeper into the history of potlikker greens, and how it came to be a Southern staple, it is, in fact, found to have its origins in England.
Bacon and greens was long a well-established dish throughout England, enjoyed across social classes. A witness in a 1739 report on court cases in the City of London reports that a criminal ‘and several others’ were eating bacon and greens. Edward Moore, in his book The World (1761), writes of ‘the wonders of Yorkshire’, noting that ‘the best people in the country… say that they never eat so heartily as of the parson’s bacon and greens’. The greens grown in Yorkshire, noted Isabella Beeton (1861), included ‘the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort’ (known in the United States as ‘collard greens’). In 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne – an American touring England – published an account of his travels titled Our Old Home and English Note Books, in which he recalled a visit to ‘one of the rustic hostleries’ in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. Hawthorne ate bacon and greens, mutton chops, and a gooseberry pudding, and considered the meal ‘good enough for a prince’.
Bacon and greens was a standard meal for English farmers. The 19th century English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote a number of accounts of rural life in his native Wiltshire, with his 1892 book The Toilers of the Field providing, as the preface to the 1898 edition notes, a valuable ‘picture of the life of all classes of the cultivators of the soil in the early [eighteen] seventies’. In the book, Jefferies writes that ‘[t]he traditional bacon and greens dinner is passing away, though still the usual fare in the small farmhouses’, and defines the ‘middle-class farmer’ as ‘the man who is neither an independent gentleman, nor obliged to live on bacon and greens’. As for the farm labourers, Jefferies reports the following:
On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening—that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity. Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have…
To dine in an English labourer’s cottage would be impossible. His bread is generally good, certainly; but his bacon is the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops—oily, soft, wretched stuff; his vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been soddened, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled—potato liquor—and sup it up with avidity. And this not in times of dearth or scarcity, but rather as a relish…
They never buy anything but bacon; never butchers’ meat. Philanthropic ladies, to my knowledge, have demonstrated over and over again even to their limited capacities that certain parts of butchers’ meat can be bought just as cheap, and will make more savoury nutritive food; and even now, with the present high price of meat, a certain proportion would be advantageous. In vain; the labourers obstinately adhere to the pig, and the pig only.
Exactly what this ‘detestable style’ of cooking cabbage might have been is suggested in other writings of the period. In 1863, Dr Edward Smith conducted a detailed survey of labourers’ diets, and found that ‘where fat was available, cabbage was usually cooked in it’. Another 19th century observer noted that ‘bacon fat… served to relish farm labourers’ “potatoes and cabbages, which was all they got for dinner”’. Indeed, Jefferies writes that the farm labourer ‘believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping’. As for the farm labourer’s children, Jefferies notes that while they might get a little cheese or bacon, they subsisted mainly on ‘a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor’.
Such food had a long history in England. In the 17th century:
The poor ate rye or barley bread, those better off manchets of white wheat flour. Bacon, souse, brawn, powdered (salted) beef or mutton, and barrelled (pickled) herrings, or other fish, were the mainstay of the table in winter. Brewis was eaten largely [‘bread soaked in pot-liquor’]…. Common people ate with wooden or latteen spoons from wooden trenchers.
In 1795, the Revd. David Davies published The Case of Labourers in Husbandry. In his book, Davies included a study of ‘The parish of Barkham, in the county of Berks, Easter 1787’, and reports the ‘weekly expenses of a family, consisting of a man and his wife, and five children, the eldest eight years of age, the youngest an infant’. In 18th century Berkshire, writes Davies, a farm labourer would feed his family with a pound of bacon, ‘boiled at two or three times [a week] with greens: the pot-liquor, with bread and potatoes, makes a mess for the children’.
This English diet was brought to the United States during the colonial period  and persists to this day, particularly in the Southern states, where a ‘mess’ of collard greens cooked with bacon or other pork products is a much-loved dish, the pot liquor (‘pot likker’) being ‘sopped up’ with cornbread. The ‘sop’, of course, dates back to medieval England  and was defined in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary as ‘bread steeped in liquor or dripping’.
Gloria Lund Main writes that in colonial Maryland:
Marylanders ate an American diet cooked in old English style… White and black, servant and master – all liked their meat and vegetables cooked together in the large pot over the fire, and the corn bread baked on the hearth.
‘G.W.W.’, a Kentucky gentleman, writes in 1859:
In very early Kentucky times, the universal dinner, winter and spring at every farm house in the state, was a piece of middling bacon, boiled with cabbage, turnips, greens, collards, or sprouts, cabbage sprouts, according to the season. The pot, if the family was a large one, contained about ten gallons, and was nearly filled with clean pure water, the middlings and the greens were put in at the proper time, to give them a sufficient cooking.
The Virginia writer George William Bagby notes in his The Old Virginia Gentleman: And Other Sketches (1877) that ‘the cabbage’ is ‘sacred to the Virginia dinner-table’ and that bacon and greens were cooked together. Bagby identifies the greens in question as ‘the ugly pot-herb of the sea-cliffs of England’. As such, he is clearly referring to ‘collards’, the coleworts first brought to Virginia by English colonists. In her famous book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), the English cookery writer Isabella Beeton writes the following:
On the cliffs of Dover, and in many places on the coasts of Dorsetshire, Cornwall, and Yorkshire, there grows a wild plant, with variously-indented, much-waved, and loose spreading leaves, of a sea-green colour, and large yellow flowers. In spring, the leaves of this plant are collected by the inhabitants, who, after boiling them in two waters, to remove the saltness, use them as a vegetable along with their meat. This is the Brassica oleracea of science, the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort, from which have originated all the varieties of Cabbage, Cauliflower, Greens, and Brocoli.
Returning to the South, we find that ‘bacon and greens’ was seen as a hearty meal prepared by good wives. A character in the nineteenth century Virginia writer Beverley Tucker’s novel George Balcombe (1836) states that ‘highly educated wives’ are generally ‘left to men of cultivated but effeminate minds’, while ‘those whose names live in the mouths of men, prefer the plain housewifely girl, who reads her Bible, works her sampler, darns her stockings, and boils her bacon and greens together’.
This was a universal meal, consumed in the South by master and slave alike. Daniel Hundley’s Social Relations In Our Southern States (1860) reports that ‘the usual fare of the slaves is bacon and greens’. Slave narratives, likewise, state that children on the plantations were fed with pot liquor:
These children were fed cornbread and milk for breakfast and supper, and “pot licker” with cornbread for dinner.
Dey wuz six uv us chillun an dey would feed us in a big wooden tray.
Dey’d po’ hot pot liquor in de tray an crumble braid in hit.
Yet, while it was the case that bacon and greens was a meal eaten by the slaves, an article in an 1860 issue of The Southern Cultivator magazine states that ‘people of all classes, sexes, ages, and conditions’ in the South consumed large quantities of fat bacon and pork, and ate ‘boiled bacon and collards at dinner’.
The Southern states were largely agrarian, and had been from the colonial period, when Englishmen – ranging from the planter gentry to small farmers and indentured servants – first settled Virginia and established it as a British colony. These Englishmen brought their culture, traditions, and foodways with them, so it is entirely unsurprising to find that the common English dish of bacon and greens gained a foothold in the South, or that English rural labourers’ practice of eating pot liquor and bread, and seasoning strong leafy greens with bacon fat, should have entered the slave diet (especially given the fact that, early on, English indentured servants worked in the fields alongside slaves).