Every February we celebrate heart health and love. But we also celebrate Black History Month, paying tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society and to celebrate their amazing contributions to modern life. Their tenacity, inventiveness, achievements and ability to go high when society goes low teaches all of us valuable life lessons.
For me, Black History Month takes me back to a story that I love to tell and makes me smile to this day. It has nothing to do with history or February but for me, was an experience that will stay with me forever.
And I doubt the ladies about whom this tale is told even remember me.
It was a blistering hot summer in Philadelphia and along with the good people at Farm to City, we had established a small farm market at Dilworth Plaza, right outside our City Hall in an attempt to make fresh food more accessible to city workers.
To that end, we decided that each week, a local chef would come in to the market and cook something fresh from one of the farmers…under a tent, on a portable burner. The chefs had a blast interacting with the people and the farmers and so every Wednesday from 12-2, there was an impromptu party on the plaza as we cooked and talked as people took their lunch breaks.
On this particular Wednesday, I perused the market and found the…most…gorgeous…collard greens I had ever seen from a local city garden. I simply had to cook and sample them. I was happily sautéing and handing out plates of steaming hot, lightly cooked collards when a shadow passed across my burner.
I looked up to see three stately African-American women I had ever met. Laughing, they asked, “Girl, what are you doing to those collards?” Not with those collards, but to those collards as though I was offending the greens..as though what could this redhead know about cooking these greens?
I swallowed (intimidated as I would be had my mother or Nonna asked me the same thing) and replied, “Sautéing them with onions and hot chili pepper. Want to try?”
They looked at each other and back at me as though they would indulge a silly request by a child. Laughing, they said, “You do not saute collards, dear. You simmer them for hours to make them tender and sweet." There was mention of ham hocks as well.
I laughed with them and said that I was trying something different. I offered these lovely ladies plates, piled high with bright green, barely cooked, spicy collard greens and held my breath.
They took a tentative bite, looked at each other with raised eyebrows and turned to me.
“How did you do this?” they asked. “Why do these taste so sweet, so spicy?”
After we talked some more; they advised me on how to make the perfect moist cornbread (something I had struggled with…). On this perfect summer day, we learned from each other. We discovered together how delicious fresh collard greens can be and how opening our hearts and minds to other ways of thinking can change the world…one recipe at a time. I'm hoping they invite me for ravioli some day...
Now more than ever, we live in times that demand our open hearts and minds. Let’s take this month that honors hearts, love and achievement and listen to those around us; understand that we are all different and embrace our diversity to create a peaceful world.