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Singing The Praises of Potlikker

Never mind moonshine – it’s potlikker that traditionally fueled the South, from the mountains of Appalachia to the tumbleweeds of Texas. Potlikker is the rich liquid left over in the pot after a long, slow simmering of greens (like collards, turnips or mustards) when seasoned with a bit of salty meat (like ham hock, smoked turkey wings or slab bacon). This leftover cooking liquid might seem like something to discard for those not in-the-know, but as it turns out, potlikker is divine, providing such a transcendent experience when soaked up by cornbread (or even sipped on its own) that you’ll quickly learn to savor it down to the last drop.

The original nutritious green drink?

Potlikker originated as a staple in the African American cuisine of the American South – a culinary tradition known worldwide as Soul Food. This nutrient-dense liquid was – and still is – used as a base for soups and other dishes. Simmering greens such as in this Potlikker and Blackeye Pea recipe for such a long time causes nutritive goodies like vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin A, iron and a host of minerals to leach out into the cooking water, creating the kind of nurturing drink that should probably be bottled and marketed as a wellness elixir! And when the greens are simmered down with a few beans or field peas, it only adds to the flavor and the nutritive value.

The Great Potlikker and Cornpone Debate

But potlikker’s influence doesn’t just stop at the dinner table—oh, no. It’s played an outsized role in provoking strong feelings in Southern art, literature and politics over the years, creating plenty of interstate rivalries and public outcry over how best to eat the dish. Perhaps most notable is a 1931 squaring off between Atlanta Constitution editor Julian Harris and Louisiana Governor Huey Long. Harris crumbled his cornbread into the potlikker to eat with a spoon, while Long did the far less “fashionable” thing by dunking his handheld cornbread hunk into the juices. The entire South was thrown into a tizzy, but Long eventually got the last word on potlikker: In 1935, he included an explanation of all its merits as part of a long-winded filibuster on the U.S. Senate floor.

Bean Liquor vs. Potlikker

Similar to the debate over whether “real chili” contains beans or not, Southerners differ in their ideas of how to spell the word “potlikker” and what goes in it. While it’s well established that the broth from cooking beans is called “bean liquor” or “liquor” and that the word “potlikker” refers to the liquid from cooking greens, there are plenty of folks who throw field peas or beans in with their greens and still call the leftover liquid potlikker. Either way, home cooks and chefs alike are finding delicious new uses for potlikker these days, from cocktails (potlikker martini, anyone?), to potlikker vinaigrette for salads, to outside-the-box potlikker breakfast stews. And when beans and greens get together with plenty of potlikker? That’s the kind of second-and-third helping dish that’s warming down to the bones. In any case, don’t forget the cornbread!

Written by Sarah Baird, a writer and editor based in New Orleans. An award-winning former restaurant critic for the city’s alt-weekly and seasoned tippling enthusiast, her work appears regularly in print and online for Lucky Peach, Food52, AFAR, Pacific Standard, Saveur, The Atlantic, Eater, The Village Voice, PUNCH, The Guardian, GOOD, and beyond. 

Categories: Let's Cook! Recipes