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N.C. Town Cooks Up Yellow Cabbage Collards

Cox sells his yellow cabbage collards fresh or frozen, raw or cooked.
Adam Hochberg/NPR /
Cox sells his yellow cabbage collards fresh or frozen, raw or cooked.
Lunch at Bum's Restaurant in downtown Ayden, N.C. Larry Dennis' collards are served with ham, boiled potatoes and bread.
Adam Hochberg/NPR /
Lunch at Bum's Restaurant in downtown Ayden, N.C. Larry Dennis' collards are served with ham, boiled potatoes and bread.

With the kind of pride that only a small-town chamber of commerce could muster, Ayden, N.C., trumpets itself as the "collard capital of the world." For as long as anyone can remember, this community has tied its civic identity to the thick, leafy vegetable.

And Benny Cox does his part.

Benny and his wife, Vickie, run a roadside stand called The Collard Shack. You won't find the green collards here that are common throughout the South. Instead, the Coxes grow yellow cabbage collards — an heirloom variety that's rare outside this part of North Carolina.

"The yellow cabbage collard has a different taste than what is called a green Georgia collard. The yellow cabbage collard is more tender. It's got a yellow tint to it, and it's not as tough," Cox says.

When we visited the Coxes, several customers were buying collards by the bagful, which Vickie says isn't unusual in the rural South, where collards seem to be a major food group of their own.

"Growing up, when Daddy farmed tobacco, we had collards five days a week at least. We might have a different meat to go with it, but I've been eating collards as long as I can remember," she says.

The Coxes do their biggest business around special occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and during the fall Collard Festival, when Ayden crowns its collard queen. But because the crop grows year-round here, you'll almost always find someone in town cooking up a batch.

At Bum's Restaurant in Ayden, Larry Dennis starts cooking them at 4 a.m. In one pot, he boils the collards until they're soft, while in a second, he makes Southern gravy.

"I put me in an assortment of ham — some fresh ham, some tenderized ham and some country ham. Then I put a lot of different kind of sauces in it. And I'll boil that until everything in there gets just like butter. Then we pour that sauce I've made over the collards," Dennis says.

Though Dennis serves 200 gallons of collards some weeks, he says he's never thought of marketing them outside Ayden. Likewise, Benny Cox says he has his hands full just tending his roadside stand. So yellow cabbage collards remain just a local delicacy in this small North Carolina town.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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United States & World Morning Edition
Adam Hochberg
Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Adam Hochberg reports on a broad range of issues in the Southeast. Since he joined NPR in 1995, Hochberg has traveled the region extensively, reporting on its changing economy, demographics, culture and politics. He also currently focuses on transportation. Hochberg covered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, followed candidates in three Presidential elections and reported on more than a dozen hurricanes.