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Bringing a festival of greens to the neighborhood

Waveney Ann Moore

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Chefs Marguerite Jirau and Vince Blancato of the American Culinary Federation of Tampa Bay serve up tastings of collard green smoothies at the 2020 Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival. Photo by Angelique Herring

I’m a relatively new convert to collard greens, their cultural significance, nutritional benefits and enticement for second helpings.

My awakening took place while at lunch with a friend who raved about the collard greens being served. I gave in and got a small portion. It was delicious and wasn’t bitter, as I had been told to expect by those, who like me, had grown up eating callaloo – another variation of greens – in the Caribbean.

I’ve since discovered an even more flavorful, healthier version of collard greens created by my friend Boyzell Hosey. If you’re lucky, you might get a taste this Saturday at the Collard Green Festival he founded with fellow Bethel Community Baptist Church member Samantha Harris.

The festival is their fourth, the idea emerging from an electric pressure cooker that Hosey used to help transform the traditionally lengthy preparation of collard greens into a quick, nutritious, tasty dish.

“It was really divinely dropped on us,” he said of the idea to plan a festival focused on, of all things, collard greens. “We started to do some research on collard greens festivals and that’s when we discovered a few of them.”

A pilgrimage to the Original Collard Greens Cultural Festival in Lithonia, Ga., provided inspiration for the St. Petersburg event that would find a home in the city’s historic African-American center.

The mission was noble: “To inspire healthier communities through urban agriculture, culinary experience, nutritional education, fitness, and family fun.”

The pandemic created challenges this year, but the organizers were determined to carry on. “I think, in our minds, we just wanted to do something to maintain our presence,” said Hosey, deputy editor for photography at the Tampa Bay Times. “We didn’t want to lose an entire year. We wanted the community to know that we are committed to this festival, that we feel it’s important.”

The festival site, off 22nd Street S and Ninth Avenue, in an area that has struggled to keep a full-service supermarket offering the fresh, nutritious foods other neighborhoods take for granted, was intentionally chosen.

“Our whole mission is trying to inspire a healthier community through the foods we eat, through fitness and nutrition. We wanted to help bring that message to a community that’s oftentimes overlooked, stereotyped, mislabeled,” Hosey said. “We feel that folks need to know that things of excellence can come out of South St. Pete.”

Their commitment to the free event off the Deuces corridor is just as passionately expressed by Harris. “We want to be accessible to the generations of Black people who are near and dear to our heart as an organization,” she said.

“The collard green is just the draw, but the intent is to educate about the benefits of living healthier lifestyles, and in turn, improving our quality of life. We believe our impact in this specific community mirrors that of the rich and creative energy our African-American ancestors paved decades ago.”

I find it heartwarming that the crowds that have supported the festival since it began four years ago are racially diverse. “It’s just people enjoying people,” Hosey said. “There’s no political agenda.”

There’s more good news. This year, the event boasts its first title sponsor and bears the name, the 2021 Publix Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival. “It is almost like the field of dreams,” Hosey said.

And to think it all started with an electric pressure cooker bought from Home Shopping. The nutrient-rich collards had always been part of Hosey’s life.  “My mom, she killed it,” he said. As did Aunt Selma from Cleveland.

But going against tradition, Hosey and his wife, Andrida, started experimenting.  They cooked their collard greens with smoked turkey instead of the customary ham hocks, fatback or bacon – Andrida doesn’t eat pork – and eventually began to add specially prepared infused oils and secret seasonings to their recipe. In any event, their collards were consistently ready in 25 to 30 minutes.

Traditionalists were initially aghast. Miss Edith at Bethel Community “laughed me under the table,” Hosey recalled.

So did Harris, a publisher and author of faith-based books. “No one puts greens in an electric pressure cooker,” she thought. “Who does that? … Come to find out, they’re amazing.”

And what freedom. Harris said she grew up watching her mother prepare and cook the greens. There was rinsing and more rinsing and rinsing again to get rid of soil and possible bugs on the leaves. In fact, her mother added a squirt of Dawn dishwashing liquid to help. And, shared Harris, some people even popped their greens into the washing machine.

The washing regimen was followed by removing the midrib from each leaf, chopping and then cooking. It was an all-day event, quipped Harris, now an Instant Pot convert happily using bags of prepared collard greens for her own cooking.

Even as the festival savors new traditions – including a recipe for collard greens cupcakes – this year it will honor the wisdom of African-American elder Mordecai Walker. The 96-year-old retired Pinellas County educator, who taught horticulture for 36 years before retiring from the school district, will be the festival’s first Collard Green King.

A couple of food celebrities, both James Beard Award winners, will return. Journalist and cookbook author Toni Tipton-Martin and St. Petersburg native Edouardo Jordan, a chef and restaurateur based in Seattle, will each make a virtual appearance.

There is a bit of sadness this year, too. Hosey’s brother, Roy, who died from the coronavirus last fall, was an important part of the festival.

“There are times when emotionally, I get a bit overwhelmed,” Hosey said. “He loved people. I’m definitely going to miss his presence this year. He developed the oils we used. He’ll be right with us.  When I think of our relationship, it does help to inspire me.”

 

If you go

The 2021 Publix Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival

10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with yoga starting at 9:30, Saturday, 22nd Street S and Ninth Avenue, St. Petersburg. Free. Go to tbcgf.org for the schedule.

Some events will be livestreamed on the festival’s website and Facebook page. A documentary about the festival, created by Dr. Lillian Dunlap and Jaye Sheldon of Your Real Stories Inc., can be viewed on Facebook or the website, 7 p.m. Friday.

 

 

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