by Wesley Harris
Potlikker, a countryfied sobriquet for pot liquor, is the delicate, savory juice left in the bottom of the pot after cooking certain vegetables. It’s the liquid Huey Long said could feed a hungry nation.
The importance of potlikker in feeding the poor South in pioneer days, through the Great Depression, and beyond has been commemorated with a new historic marker in Haynesville.
The Claiborne Parish Library obtained a grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation’s “Hungry for History” program. The Pomeroy grants recognize foods of importance in American history. A marker celebrating the value of potlikker was erected at the future Haynesville branch of the parish library on U.S. 79 last week.
For those who have no knowledge of potlikker (or pot liquor or pot likker), it 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 up with cornbread.
According to popular folklore, eating certain foods on New Year's Day guarantees good luck through 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 peas works well with cornbread. When eating peas, don’t dish them onto a plate with a slotted spoon. A solid spoon gets plenty of potlikker on the plate to sop up with the cornbread. Green, leafy vegetables at New Year’s ensure financial fortunes for the coming year.
Southern favorites include turnip greens, mustard, collards or boiled cabbage. Whatever green is chosen, chunks of pork and the right combination of salt and pepper are added to achieve proper potlikker. Potlikker without pork is not 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 a first New Year’s meal can triple 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 green liquor in 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 for vegetable gardens in the rural South and the consumption of potlikker to improve health.
Slaves knew the benefits of potlikker long before Huey Long touted its value on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In narratives collected during the Great Depression by writers employed by the Works Progress Administration, former slaves explained how potlikker sustained their families as a supplement to meager diets. When greens or beans were cooked for the masters, the vitamin-packed juices were saved for the enslaved children.
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.”
The Haynesville marker was paid for completely by the Pomeroy Foundation. Research into the history of potlikker in the region was conducted by the library’s historian Wesley Harris.
Potlikker is a Southern delicacy with a rich history and the marker will help share that history. Information on the marker and other Claiborne Parish markers can be viewed at hmdb.com.