The subject of pot likker comes up from time to time in the blog, but not all of my regular readers know what it is, and fewer have ever made it. So here’s a recipe with an historical pedigree. It’s from Huey P. Long, known in his time as the Kingfish. You may recall that a while back I mentioned the dispute between Long and Franklin Roosevelt over how to deal with cornbread and pot likker. (Long dunked the cornbread in the pot likker, while Franklin Roosevelt crumbled the cornbread into the pot likker.) Long gave the Nation a classic recipe for pot likker, which I’ll get to in a minute.
First, though, for those unfamiliar with pot likker (or potlikker, or pot liquor), it’s the liquid left after you boil greens — collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, or kale. When I was growing up, Dear used either turnip greens or mustard greens. You also get a somewhat different pot likker from boiling green beans or, I guess, anything else green. When you order greens or green beans in a barbecue place or a meat and three, they will usually come in a small bowl or on a ridged plate to prevent the excess liquid from getting into the other food you ordered. Once you eat the greens or green beans, having first sprinkled them with pepper vinegar, of course, there will be liquid in the bottom of the bowl. You dunk your cornbread into it, a la Huey Long, or crumble your cornbread into it, a la FDR.
Pot likker is highly nutritious, as half or more of the vitamins and minerals from the vegetables wind up in the broth. Pot likker is rich in vitamin C and iron, and is an especially good source of vitamin K. The best collard greens I can remember eating were a heirloom variety grown around Ayden, North Carolina at Bum’s Restaurant. (Ayden is just south of Greenville.)
It would be worth the drive to go to Bum’s for the greens alone, but Bum’s also has the best Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue in the world. I double checked. The green beans are great, too, and the banana pudding is outstanding. But I digress.
Then-Senator Long shared his recipe for pot likker during an unsuccessful, alas, 15 1/2 hour filibuster to require Senate confirmation of the senior leadership of the National Recovery Administration. From the Congressional Record, June 12, 1935:
First you get some turnip greens. You have to wash turnip greens many times…turnip greens contain more manganese than do mustard greens….you take the greens and the turnips and you put them in the pot. Remember this: Do not salt them. Do not put any salt, do not put any pepper, do not put any mustard, do not put any kind of seasoning in the pot with them….put in a sizable quantity of water….put in there a piece of salted side meat…you ought to put about a 1 pound hunk of side meat that is sliced, but not clear through, just down to the skin part….it will properly temper the turnip greens when it has been cooked through. That is all the seasoning that is needed. When you have cooked the greens until they are tender and the turnips until they are tender, you take up the turnips and the greens, and the soup that is left is potlikker. That brings on the real question of the art of eating potlikker….You draw off the potlikker and you eat it separately from the turnip greens.
You will notice that Sen. Long, failed to specify the amount of greens beyond an unhelpful “some,” sort of like the way Senators propose to do great things without offering the financial details. With a pound of side meat, I’d say about 2 pounds or so of greens, enough to serve perhaps six people, as long as I’m not one of them.
You will probably want to adjust the recipe. First, the turnips don’t really add much. These days you’ll almost certainly buy turnip greens without turnips, but then this was during the Depression and you probably grew the turnips yourself. Also, you can vary the meat. Come to think of it, you may not be familiar with side meat, which is just salt pork. You can use a ham hock or some cured bacon, diced. (Bum’s adds country ham, but if you have any country ham, you really should put it on a biscuit.) Or you can use fresh meat. Just get a hunk of inexpensive (i.e., pretty fatty) pork, such as fatback (side meat that has not been cured at all) or country style ribs (NOT baby back or spare ribs). It’s good to remove the tough stems, chop the greens into manageable pieces, bite-sized or smaller, and to dice the turnips if you have any. Bring the water to a boil, throw everything in, and turn down the heat to let it simmer, uncovered, for an hour and a half or two hours.
If you follow the recipe, you’ll have a mess of greens and a bowl of pot likker. All you need now is corn bread. Here’s the only corn bread recipe you’ll ever need.
Spoon a helping of greens from the pot into a separate bowl for each individual, and serve it along with the rest of the meal. Add some pepper vinegar to the greens and dig in. There will be liquid — pot likker — left in the bowl after you finish the greens. That’s why you made the corn bread. Dunk or crumble, as you prefer.
There will be leftover pot likker. Save it. You can use it for your next batch of greens, (just add enough water to cover the greens and meat) — it gets better every time. Or throw in some vegetables and meat and use it for a soup base.
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You probably already know that Willy Stark, the central character in Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men, was based loosely on Huey Long. If you haven’t already read it, do. You can skip chapter 3, the intercalary Cass Mastern chapter, if you like. In 1949, the novel was made into a movie starring Broderick Crawford. He won Best Actor and the film won Best Picture. There was a remake in 2006 with an all star cast. I haven’t seen it, and neither has anyone else. It seems to have folded almost immediately.
T. Harry Williams wrote a wonderful biography, Huey Long, that you definitely should read if you haven’t, and that you should read again if you have. Long’s own book, Every Man a King, is an interesting and easy read — perhaps the only political autobiography that I can recommend. Let me know if you can think of another.
If you go to the capitol building in Baton Rouge, you can still see bullet holes from Long’s assassination.