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.
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Ayden Collard Festival, Sept 8-10, 2011
N.C. Town Cooks Up Yellow Cabbage Collards
by Adam Hochberg
566 3rd St, Ayden, NC 28513
4639 S Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513
J and I Kitchen
4361 S Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513