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May 12, 2011 11:26 PM

Ayden NC, Collard Capital of the World: Collard Shack, Bum’s, and J & I Kitchen

The dome atop the famed Pete Jones Skylight Inn heralds its own status as the Bar-B-Cue Capital. But unknown to me was Ayden’s second crown, Collard Capital of the World. Thank you to mikeh and Thomas Nash for enlightening me about the world-class collard greens grown and served up in this town’s terroir.

Before going into Skylight, I checked out the Collard Shack, right next door. It was already closed for the day, but the gentleman puttering around didn’t mind me taking a look. Here are some collards gone to seed for propagation in the parking lot.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to see both younger and older plants up close. Lighter in color, there’s more of a yellow tone to the shade of green. The leaves have a ruffled edge and are less thick with finer veining than the collards I’ve cooked with at home.

After eating at Skylight and spending close to an hour in the smokehouse with the crew and Sam Jones, I headed over to Bum's. It was locked up and dark. I was pretty upset to discover that I’d missed the Tuesday 2:30pm closing time.

Standing in front of Bum’s in the rain, I could look up at a billboard across the way that promoted the town’s Collard Festival. This made me more determined to taste the collards from this renowned appellation.

On the way to Bum’s, I’d driven by what looked like a meat-and-three place. I double-backed to J and I Kitchen to see if I could rouse anyone.

The door was unlocked and inside the plain but spick-n-span dining room I saw a line of empty buffet trays and a menu handwritten on a white board. I poked my head into the kitchen and called out, but no one was in there either. As I turned to leave, the owner walked in and I asked if he used cabbage collard greens grown in Ayden. “Yes, ma’am” was his answer, and he said I could buy a small size (pint) for $3 or a larger size for $5, cold or hot. I asked for the greens packed to go, but heated so that I could taste them on the spot.

I popped open the styro box to find four large hush puppies on top of a pile of collards. Tapered on the ends and long-ish with gentle indentations from hand-forming, the dark brown hush puppies were blazing hot, very crunchy on the outside, and more salty and less sweet. They were the best ones of my trip. Likewise the collards were unlike any other greens I’d tasted. Medium-chopped, the greens had a silkier, more tender texture more akin to spinach than bitter greens. Even the stemmy parts were tender. There was no vinegar on the table, but these didn’t need any. They’d been seasoned to a tee with a gentle spice from the secret ingredient, fresh jalapeño chilis. As I tasted, the owner explained that at this time of year the collards are softer and not as fully developed in flavor. He said that I needed to come back in later summer or for the festival to taste them at peak flavor.

Here’s a close-up for the delicious collards from J & I Kitchen in Ayden. Of the many uneaten bites and leftover plates that I had to leave behind, these collards were the hardest ones to toss away.

* * * * * * * * *

Ayden Collard Festival, Sept 8-10, 2011

N.C. Town Cooks Up Yellow Cabbage Collards
by Adam Hochberg

Bum's Restaurant
566 3rd St, Ayden, NC 28513

Collard Shack
4639 S Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513

J and I Kitchen
4361 S Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513

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  1. Sounds like a successful visit to the most fibrous town in eastern NC. I don't think I've ever seen any signs of life at J&I, despite having passed by it about a thousand times on the way to Pete Jones.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Naco

      It certainly didn't look open when I drove by the first time even though the "open" sign was in the window. J and I Kitchen doesn't seem to have any presence on the web either, Google doesn't have a place page for it, and I couldn't find any evidence of anyone eating there even though it has been here for several years. The proprietor asked me if I knew where the name J&I came from and then explained that it stands for "Jesus and I".

      J and I Kitchen
      4361 S Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513

    2. Melanie, I have really enjoyed reading your posts from your culinary adventure in NC. Thanks for sharing with us!

      About collards, just so you know--in NC and most of the south, they are grown as cool-season vegetables. They're planted in late summer, and they actually benefit (flavor-wise) from being left in the field through one or two frosts, and even a freeze or two. So the most flavorful time is right around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

      Collards can also be planted in the spring and harvested as young leaves. This is less common in NC, so I'm wondering if you ate fresh young leaves, or some of last year's crop (cooked collards do freeze pretty well). And by the way, in 50 years of eating lots of collards, I've never heard of putting jalapenos in them. Maybe they're good that way, but I just wanted to point out that it's not the traditional way of preparing them.

      Looking forward to more of your posts!

      5 Replies
      1. re: arbyunc

        A lot of people put red pepper flakes in during the cook. Sort of the same thing. And of course pepper vinegar is traditional.

        Jalapeños and other chiles work really well for flavoring the liquor, though. Last winter I did a Northern Indian style collard dish that was posted on CH with serranos and garam masala added into the liquor and it was to die for.

        1. re: Naco

          One of my favorite ways to cook collards is a Filipino dish called Laing (pronounced lah-ING). In its native land, I understand that it's made with taro leaves but in San Francisco, folks use collards, chard or a mix. You braise collards in coconut milk with jalapeños, garlic and onion.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            I got to try laing (with taro leaves) when I was in the Philippines in January...once of my favorite dishes on the trip and definitely my favorite vegetarian dish (a rarity in Filipino cuisine). Laing is also, probably, the original basis for the decidely non-vegetarian dish known as Bicol Express.

        2. re: arbyunc

          Yes, that's my understanding of collards. However, his explanation to me is that these were immature, young cabbage collards, presumably fresh. I assumed that they were young leaves similar to what I saw at the Collard Shack. At the farmers market in Winston-Salem I also saw young leaves sold by the pound as "tender greens" though not cabbage collards.

          Here's a post on the NC Folk Life blog, dated March 2011, that shows the planting at Collard Shack and says that they'll be ready around Mothers Day. So maybe they're grown year-round in Ayden.

          When I asked the owner what type of chili he used, he hesitated, then said, "Well, you're from San Francisco and can't copy me" before he id'd the jalapeños. He's not using a lot, but you can see a couple chile pepper seeds in my photograph. The green, grassiness of jalapeño is quite complementary to the delicate taste of these cabbage collards.

          I'd love to get some seeds for yellow cabbage collards and try to grow them at home.

          Collard Shack
          4639 S Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            You can grow collards outside of the cool months, but arby is correct that a frost or two improves them a lot.