Working with seed donors like Jerome Feaster is one of the best parts of my job. For the last 25 years, Jerome has stewarded a mustard green that’s been in his family for nearly a century. He and his aunt have grown the Feaster Family Heirloom since his mother, Gladys Abraham Feaster, passed away in 1989. Gladys got the seed from her father-in-law sometime after her marriage to Jacob Lynn Feaster in 1929. Jerome isn’t sure how long his grandfather grew the variety, but he assumes that it was brought by Jacob Wesley’s father when the family moved from South Carolina to Florida before the Civil War. Not only has the Feaster family been maintaining this variety for nearly 100 years, they’ve all been doing it on the same farm near the rural community of Shiloh in Marion County, Florida.
When he donated seeds to us last year, Jerome said, “Cool weather is greens weather, and we like to eat these greens on special occasions. A popular menu is to have them served with sweet potatoes and ham.”
Well, this year, Jerome wanted to share his tradition with the staff at SSE, so he sent up a box of freshly picked greens to help us celebrate New Year’s Day!
The greens survived the journey from Florida and arrived at Heritage Farm in fine shape, and we quickly got to work making up a big batch according to Jerome’s recipe. I enlisted Steffen Mirsky (of “True Grits” fame, and SSE taste-tester extraordinaire) to help prepare the feast and we started gathering our supplies. We have a “kitchen” in the Seed Lab that Steffen and Phil Kauth use to prep taste tests in the Evaluation Program, but it requires a bit of creative thinking when it comes to making more complicated recipes. For example, instead of a wooden spoon, the utensil drawer contained a wooden shim. We didn’t have any colanders or strainers, so we had to use a steamer basket to drain the greens. The stove is right next to the Tissue Culture Lab, so there were racks of test tubes, beakers, and other lab paraphernalia crowding the countertops.
Jerome told us to start by seasoning the cooking water with a smoked meat product of some kind. We opted for bacon, but country ham, coppa or capicola, or smoked fatback would also do the trick. After putting 4-6 pieces of bacon in a 6-quart pot with a quart of water, we brought the concoction to a boil, then lowered the heat to medium and let it simmer for 30 minutes.
The aroma of bacon quickly filled the entire building, and Steffen and I had to fight off people trying to sneak a taste.
While the bacon was simmering, we washed the greens twice and stripped the leaves from the wide midribs. Jerome said we could cut the stems and midribs into small pieces and cook separately and they will “eat somewhat like celery.” Steffen took a moment to munch on a raw leaf to confirm that it was indeed a mustard, since mustard greens and Chinese cabbages can easily be mistaken for one another. We tore the leaves into small pieces and put them into the pot of bacon water a few pieces at a time, adding more as they wilted. Once we’d added all the greens, we brought the water to a boil and reduced it to a simmer. We covered and cooked the greens for 5 minutes or so until they were as tender as we wanted them, and then we drained the water. Jerome said to be careful not to mash the greens and don’t forget the hot vinegar sauce! We also whipped up a batch without bacon so the resident vegetarians could join the Feaster Feasting Fest.
The dish was a big hit with everyone that tried it. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was how much people liked the stems and midribs, since we just boiled them in a bit of water and didn’t expect them to have much flavor. They were quite succulent and everyone agreed that they tasted just like broccoli. The greens themselves were delicious and staff members kept coming back for more. Steffen and I had a great time making a big mess of greens for the Preservation staff, and it was a real honor to join Jerome’s family in welcoming in the New Year!
Look for the Feaster Family Heirloom mustard listing from Heritage Farm in the 2016 Yearbook and online exchange, and you too can join in the Feaster Family feast!
Feaster Family Heirloom mustard greens according to Jerome Feaster himself:
Wash greens 2 times. Strip greens from midrib and tear or cut into small pieces. (You may cut stems into small pieces and cook separately. Stems will eat somewhat like celery.)
Put 4-6 pieces of smoked bacon or other smoked meat for seasoning in a 6 qt. cooker/pot. Add 1qt. water, bring to boil, lower to medium heat for 30 minutes. Add salt to taste.
Add greens to water a few pieces at a time. As they wilt stir and add more greens. Bring to boil then lower to simmer.
Cover and cook until tenderness and flavor you desire. (Jerome lets his go for about an hour to take on plenty of the bacon flavor.)
Drain. (Do not mash.)
Don't forget hot vinegar sauce for the greens!
Very good with sweet potatoes and ham.
Zach Row-Heyveld is the Germplasm Storage and Distribution technician in the Preservation Department. He packs seed for long-term storage at Heritage Farm and offsite backup locations, retrieves seed to be grown in the Preservation gardens each spring, communicates with new seed donors, and fills Yearbook requests made of Heritage Farm (IA SSE HF).
Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.