A Story about Broccoli – and My Grandmother

If you ever find yourself in a conversation with anyone who grew up in the South, and the subject of food arises, you are sure to hear the phrase “a mess of greens.”  In the South, particularly in the rural areas, the greens are almost certain to be collards or maybe turnip greens.

Now, “a mess” is an undefined, unquantified, unspecified amount. But, like a lot of terms in southern vocabulary, it is instantly understood by everyone within earshot. How much is “a mess”? However much it is. If you bring a mess of greens to a friend for their family supper, it’s the amount that would be needed to serve everyone in the household for that one meal. If your family farm has a large garden, a mess of greens is however much needs to be harvested on any specific day while they’re still at their sweet peak; you’ll probably share some of that mess with neighbors, and then it becomes their own mess of greens for tonight’s supper. Get it? If you’re southern, no need to explain, it’s just clear as can be.

Which brings me to my South Carolina grandmother. She was born in 1890, married at 16, and had her first child a month before her 17th birthday. She lived most of her life on a farm out in the country, but by the time I came along she was long widowed and living in town. But her way of cooking had not changed from the farm days, and neither had her vocabulary. One day a friend brought her what he thought would be a real treat: fresh broccoli. Little did he know, my grandmother had never seen broccoli, and she would have considered it quite rude to ask any questions. So she carefully picked off the tiny vestigial leaves from the stalks and threw the rest away.             Some time later, when the friend asked how she liked the broccoli, she replied, “Well, the greens were quite tasty, but there wasn’t much of them.”

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