Spring greens

A variety of early spring greens have long been a staple of the mountain diet. They can be part of a delicious sandwich.

Found in fallow fields and cultivated lands, there’s a treasure in the mountains most of us overlook, a nutrient rich plant that sustained families through the winter when the root cellar was getting bare.

At the first hint of warmer days, hill folk foraged for a wintertime delicacy called “creasy greens.” The shiny dark leaves of this plant served as manna for those who craved a “mess of greens” during the long winter months. Even today, if one looks closely, you can find Barbarea verna and Barbarea vulgaris (both members of the mustard family), growing together in fields and ditches.

Creasy greens are called a variety of names based on geography. Also called, bitter cress, land cress, scurvy grass, winter cress or just plain “creases,” mountain folk knew the importance of this plant. Greening up months before anything else, this little gem provides vitamins C and E, and iron. The greens also contain twice the vitamin A as broccoli and three times the vitamin C found in oranges.

Knowing how to identify, harvest and prepare creases sets hill folk apart. People who once scratched out a living on rocky hillsides recall this potherb with fondness. Much like those who enjoy collards cooked with fatback swimming in rich pot likker. In fact, creasy greens are prepared similarly. Some cooks give the creases a quick blanch to remove any bitterness, then prepare them like collards complete with pot likker. Modern-day foodies consume the leaves raw in a salad.

After hearing how delicious this winter green was, I felt I owed it to my Appalachian heritage to partake of this delicacy. However, I didn’t grow up eating creases, and the only collard greens Mama ever made came floating in vinegar (shudder), leaving me without a point of reference on how to prepare creases. Being a brave forager, I simply picked a leaf, popped it in my mouth and began to chew.

I’d like you to recall for a moment a scene in the movie “Big” when Tom Hanks tried caviar. That’s what I looked like in the garden after biting down on a leaf warmed and bitter from the summer sun. I spat out bits of greenery and scraped my tongue.

Obviously, this was before I read “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” by famed author and health food advocate Euell Gibbons, who wrote that creasy greens “grow vigorously during any warm spell in the winter.” However, he warned, “to be edible, the leaves must be gathered early, while the weather is still cold.”

It is a mystery to me how some plants taste delicious during the winter months, yet become the palatable equivalent of kyarn during the summer. Metallic, bitter and so peppery it made an out-of-season radish look promising, my first taste of creases ruined me for future experimentation.

Yet each year I had the overwhelming urge to try again. How could any green who helped my kinfolk survive be that bad? Surely I, not the greens, were at fault. I mean, I adore collards, how can anyone who loves collards detest creasy greens?

This year after discovering both creasy and cress growing in the field, I dared pick a handful of leaves. Instead of eating them raw (I will never do that again), I opted to use them on a sandwich. Figuring the oven provided enough heat to release any bitterness, I added a layer of cheese hoping the mildness from melted cheese would soften the spicy radish flavor I found distasteful. Friends, the sandwich was delicious. The greens added crunch with a hint of mustard flavor. Oven heat did lessen any bitterness without wilting the creasy. Satisfied that I had finally figured out a way to enjoy the plant my kinfolk relished, I keep a watchful eye on the field for those dark green shiny leaves knowing that now is the time to enjoy the bounty.

Renea Winchester is represented by Firefly Southern Fiction. Her first novel, “Outbound Train,” will be released in 2020.