‘Potlikker’ key to the new year

By Wesley Harris

He called me “potlikker.”

I was not quite eight when my paternal grandfather died. I don’t have many memories of him but the ones I have are vivid. When I think of the traditional foods we eat to celebrate the coming of a new year, I remember that nickname.

He called me potlikker, a countryfied sobriquet for pot liquor. I heard it as “pot licker.”  Like licking the spoon when my mother made a cake. Or the whole bowl. But I never licked a pot, so what I recognized as a term of endearment confused me.

I cannot recall when I discovered “potlikker” was the delicate, savory juice left in the bottom of the pot after cooking greens. I remember Grandaddy holding forth a pot of turnip greens at the dinner table and asking if I wanted more pot liquor. I declined, unsure what he meant. 

Most likely, a clear explanation of the term came from my maternal grandmother offering some more pot liquor for the cornbread she served at every meal.

My memories of potlikker come to mind because New Year’s Day approaches and the liquid Huey Long said could feed the nation should be an integral part of the celebration of the coming year.

For those who have no idea what I’m referring to, pot liquor (or potlikker or pot likker) is the liquid left behind after cooking greens like collards, mustard, and turnip greens or beans. Seasoned properly, a delicious liquid is created suitable for sopping your cornbread in.

According to popular folklore, eating certain foods on New Year’s Day guarantees good luck throughout the year. And when you think about it, they all revolve around potlikker.

Peas and beans symbolize coins or wealth. Southerners choose the traditional black-eyed peas seasoned with pork, but lentils or beans work, too. While not as delicate as potlikker from greens, the liquid from the peas is still great with cornbread. When you eat peas, don’t dish them onto your plate with a slotted spoon. Use a solid spoon to get plenty of potlikker to sop up with the cornbread.

Greens represent cash money. Green, leafy vegetables ensure financial fortunes for the coming year. Southern favorites include turnip greens, mustard, collards or boiled cabbage. Whatever green you choose, you must flavor it with chunks of pork and the right combination of salt and pepper to achieve proper potlikker.

Pork is considered a sign of prosperity in some cultures because pigs root forward. Many Southern New Year’s Day dishes contain pork which was usually more plentiful among households in my grandparent’s day than any other meat. Potlikker without pork is not nearly as tasty.

Cornbread might symbolize gold with corn kernels representing coins. Cornbread provides an essential complement to black-eyed peas and greens, so incorporating all three into your first 2022 meal can triple your luck. And whether you are a “dunker” or a “crumbler,” cornbread is the preferred medium for transferring potlikker to the mouth.

In his 1933 autobiography, Every Man a King, Louisiana Governor Huey Long defined “potlikker.” As a U.S. Senator, Long described potlikker during a lengthy filibuster speech. 

He called potlikker “the juice that remains in a pot after greens or other vegetables are boiled with proper seasoning. The best seasoning is a piece of salt fat pork, commonly referred to as ‘dry salt meat’ or ‘side meat.’ If a pot be partly filled with well-cleaned turnip greens and turnips (which should be cut up), with a half-pound piece of the salt pork and then with water and boiled until the greens and turnips are cooked reasonably tender, then the juice remaining in the pot is the delicious, invigorating, soul-and-body sustaining potlikker … which should be taken as any other soup and the greens eaten as any other food.

“Corn pone is made simply of meal, mixed with a little salt and water, made into a pattie and baked until it is hard. 

“It has always been the custom to eat corn pone with potlikker. Most people crumble the corn pone into the potlikker. The blend is an even tasting food. 

“But, with the progress of education, the coming of “style,” and the change of the times, I concluded that refinement necessitated that corn pone be “dunked” in the potlikker, rather than crumbled in the old-fashioned way. So I suggested that those sipping of potlikker should hold the corn pone in the left hand and the spoon in the right, sip of the soup one time, then dip the corn pone in the potlikker and bite the end of the bread. My experience showed this to be an improvement over the crumbling.”

Long advocated vegetable gardens in the rural South and the consumption of potlikker to improve health. 

Food writer John T. Edge, who wrote his graduate school thesis on potlikker, explains the broth “is more than the sum of the juices at the bottom of a pot of greens. It may be one of the more plebeian of Southern culinary creations, but never let it be said that potlikker is without import. Enshrined early in the pantheon of Southern folk belief, potlikker was prescribed by doctors and conjurers alike for ailments as varied as the croup and colic, rabies and fatigue. Though claims of its curative qualities may be farfetched, potlikker is indeed packed with nutrients, for, during the cooking process, vitamins and minerals leech out of the greens, leaving the collards, turnips, or mustards comparatively bereft of nutrients while the vitamins A, B, and C as well as potassium suffuse the potlikker.” 

Potlikker is a Southern delicacy with a rich history. My grandaddy obviously loved it. I wish I had known back then at age eight what that nickname truly meant.

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