The English Roots of Potlikker Greens

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.[1] 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’.[2] The greens grown in Yorkshire, noted Isabella Beeton (1861), included ‘the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort’ (known in the United States as ‘collard greens’).[3] 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’.[4]

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’.[5] 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’.[6] Another 19th century observer noted that ‘bacon fat… served to relish farm labourers’ “potatoes and cabbages, which was all they got for dinner”’.[7] 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.[8]

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’.[9]

This English diet was brought to the United States during the colonial period [10] 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 [11] and was defined in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary as ‘bread steeped in liquor or dripping’.[12]

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.[13]

‘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.[14]

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’.[15] 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.[16]

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’.[17]

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’.[18] 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.[19]

Likewise:

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.[20]

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’.[21]

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).[22]

The English Roots of ‘Southern Barbecue’ and ‘Southern Hospitality’

Aside from fried chicken, it is hard to think of a more iconic representation of Southern cuisine than barbecue. However, barbecue in North America did not start out that way. English settlers observed and learnt Native American barbecuing techniques and barbecues quickly became popular:

During the 18th century, barbecues became social events that were common throughout the British North American colonies. Although they are associated with the South, barbecues were held regularly in many areas. For example, a barbecue was held to launch the brigantine Barnard in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1767. Celebrations with barbecues occurred even further north. When Quebec City fell to the British during the French and Indian War in 1759, citizens of Falmouth, Maine, celebrated with a barbecue on an island that later became known as “Hog Island.” Barbecuing must also have been known as a cooking technique not used solely for large celebrations. In a 1769 newspaper advertisement, Thomas Carnes announced that he was opening a coffeehouse outside of Boston. He also noted that he would barbecue pigs or turtles. Barbecues as social gatherings or celebrations became less common in New England after the Revolutionary period.

It is not surprising that wealthy English colonists took to this form of smoked meat so enthusiastically, for their native cuisine had long featured similar flavours. As early as the 14th century, the English were eating smoked fish:

By 1349 smoked fish was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.

Smoked meats were also a part of the medieval English cuisine of the wealthy elite, particularly smoked pork, which was ‘cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried — slowly’. Bacon was also present in medieval English cuisine and goes back many centuries. It was heavily salted or cured, with sugar also added to cut through some of the saltiness. By the end of the sixteenth century, bacon was also being smoked.

Barbecue, then, both as a social event and as a form of cooking meat, was initially embraced throughout the British colonies and was not in any sense a specifically ‘Southern’ phenomenon. However, while barbecues eventually went out of fashion in the North, in Virginia they remained central to the social rituals of the gentry:

In Virginia, however, barbecues were widespread and popular social events. Feasting was a vital part of Virginia cultural traditions – much more so than in New England – and pigs were plentiful, as well. Pigs had been brought to Jamestown with the first British colonists, and since pigs are omnivores, they flourished in the woodland areas, even without much attention from settlers busy with planting and growing tobacco. As the wealth of the Virginia planters grew in the 18th century, so did their desire to build great houses, engage in consumer culture to display their wealth, and entertain guests in their homes. By the 1750s, barbecues were one of the most accepted and well-liked forms of entertainment in the colony. George Washington, among other Virginia gentry, frequently attended and hosted barbecues. The gatherings evolved from small get-togethers of family and friends to large all-day events. These large barbecues were expensive to host. Some planters objected to the cost and the drunken antics that often went along with barbecues, but they often went along with hosting and attending the events because it was an expected part of their roles as Virginia gentry.

The wealthy colonists of Virginia, in particular, sought to emulate the lifestyles of the gentry of England and ‘England remained the principal source of cultural authority and prestige’. The Reverend Hugh Jones, writing in 1724, noted:

Williamsburgh is now incorporated and made a Market Town, and governed by a Mayor and Aldermen; and is well stock’d with rich Stores, of all Sorts of Goods, and well furnished with the best Provisions and Liquors.

Here dwell several very good Families, and more reside here in their own Houses at publick Times.

They live in the same neat Manner, dress after the same Modes, and behave themselves exactly as the Gentry in London; most Families of any Note having a Coach, Chariot, Berlin, or Chaise.

In an article titled ‘Of Virginia Hospitality’, published in The London Magazine in July 1746, we read:

All over the Colony, an universal Hospitality reigns; full Tables and open Doors, the kind Salute, the generous Detention… their Manner of living is quite generous and open: Strangers are sought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited.

John Ferdinand Smyth Stuart, in his A Tour in the United States of America (1784), reported: ‘The Virginians are generous, extremely hospitable, and possess very liberal sentiments’. He also noted that, as in England, social stratification and hierarchy was pronounced:

There is a greater distinction supported between the different classes of life here than perhaps in any of the rest of the colonies, nor does that spirit of equality and levelling principle which pervades the greater part of America prevail to such an extent in Virginia.

The famed ‘Southern hospitality’, then, originated among the Virginia gentry. This hospitality, of course, did not extend to the blacks they kept as slaves, not to poor whites. When the Reverend Charles Woodmason toured the Carolina backcountry in 1766, he wrote:

How lamentable to think, that the legislature of this province will make no provision — so rich, so luxurious, polite a people! Yet they are deaf to all solicitations, and look on poor white people in a meaner light than their black slaves, and care less for them.

North Carolina was settled by Virginians, who had brought this Virginian class system with them.

This social hierarchy, complete with obligatory hospitality to fellow members of the gentry, rules of etiquette and politeness, and a callous disregard for those outside the wealthy elite, was really only a continuation of the social order of England, where a wealthy few lorded it over the peasantry. The Virginia planters were a new gentry, living a charmed life far removed from the that of the lower orders:

[T]he gentry preferred to see themselves as removed from and superior to physical labor and the commercial exchange economy. Instead they sought to portray themselves as men of leisure and generosity. This was visible in what strangers to Virginia saw as the inordinate amount of time they devoted to visiting one another and to participation in gambling, dancing, and other fashionable pursuits as well as in the attention they gave to the acquisition of prestigious homes, furnishings, clothing, and other consumer goods.

This lifestyle was directly rooted in the lifestyles of the wealthy elite of Britain, dating well back into the medieval period. The Virginia barbecue was a new form of an old tradition:

The medieval feast of the time seems to have followed a common pattern; there could, therefore, be said to be an ideal feast as aspired to by the nobility and gentry and even their servants. It was ideal in both its material nature, that is the food, and also in its conduct, that is, the rules of courtesy and hierarchy under which this social ritual was performed.

Likewise:

The medieval esteem for “magnificence” as a hallmark of noble virtue continued to underwrite courtly culture during the seventeenth century, entailing the display of aristocratic wealth through extravagant hospitality.

In medieval England, the feast was a central feature of the lives of the wealthy. The slow roasting of whole hogs on a spit was popular for medieval feasts. During cooking, the meat was basted with a sauce made of red wine and spices such as garlic and ground coriander, to keep it moist and to add extra flavour. Spices were used extensively in the cooking of the time and the nobility enjoyed a ‘highly spiced cuisine’:

The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. Spices were not only extensively used in the preparation of food but they were also passed around on a ‘spice platter’. Guests at banquets took additional spices from the spice platter and added them to their already spiced food.

Spices used in recipes of the time included black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, mace, allspice, cardamom, cubeb, spikenard, and saffron. In England, the wealthy elite’s love of highly spiced food extended well into the eighteenth century.

The Virginia colonists likewise ‘demonstrated their social standing by providing a wide variety of meats and sweets at each meal prepared in a more traditional English fashion’. As an article in The Colonial Williamsburg Journal notes:

By today’s standards, colonial fare offered too much grease, too much meat, too much seasoning, and too much sweetener. Diners liked meat and lots of it. They considered animal organs, like hearts and brains, tasty delicacies. Cooks used sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg liberally.

The Virginia barbecue, with its whole hogs prepared as part of a communal ritual of ‘hospitality’ among the gentry, arguably echoes the English tradition of the hog roast. Likewise, the spiciness of Southern food, while in part the result of the influence of African slaves on the tastes of the colonists, was strongly rooted in the preferences of the English elite of the period.

The colonists applied English basting techniques and sauces to the Native American smoking method, thereby keeping the meat juicy and flavourful and stopping it from drying out. The basting sauces were derived from English cooking:

Virginia colonists brought European cooking techniques and recipes with them when they arrived in Virginia during the early years of the seventeenth century. In colonial times, Virginians endeavored to emulate European customs, especially when it came to entertaining guests at meals. Because most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks… These cookbooks contain numerous recipes for carbonadoing and roasting foods that would become colonial Virginia staples such as venison, beef, mutton and pork, all with sauces made of spices, vinegar, pepper, and butter. Some call for mustard and/or sugar added to the mix.

The Virginia colonists took these English sauces and applied them to barbecuing:

Colonial Virginians also used the carbonado sauce recipes made of salt, vinegar, butter, peppers, herbs and spices to baste barbecuing meats while they cooked. By combining the Powhatan Indian cooking technique using a hurdle with English carbonado recipes, Virginians gave the world what we now call southern barbecue.

The ‘Virginia hospitality’ that forms the basis for the early construction of the notion of a uniquely ‘Southern hospitality’ was in reality the result of the transplanting of the social mores of the English gentry to the colony. The famous Southern ‘politeness’ and deferential mode of speaking (the ubiquity of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’) is also rooted in the notions of gentility and hierarchy brought from England. Likewise, the barbecue tradition of the South is actually rooted in the social events of the wealthy elite, who reenacted the medieval hog roast of England using cooking techniques developed by Native Americans, and seasoning techniques popular in England. Even barbecue sauce is derived from the tastes and basting methods of the wealthy elite of England.

As Virginians spread out across the Southern states, they took their aristocratic Anglophile culture with them, and even their mode of speech, which came to be seen as specifically ‘Southern’, echoed that of their ancestral homeland. Virginia barbecue spread throughout the South and became known as a ‘Southern’ food and form of social event, and the famed ‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ of elite planter society (‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ directed towards fellow members of the gentry, not the population as a whole) likewise came to be seen as a hallmark of ‘Southern’ culture.

Barbecue and Southern hospitality (as well as a social model in which a tiny elite held most of the wealth), then, are ultimately phenomena directly derived from England, specifically its upper echelons.