Pot likker, anyone?
By Patsy Pridgen
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Well, well, well, my girl Vivian Howard — owner of the popular restaurant Chef & the Farmer, star of the award-winning PBS show “A Chef’s Life,” and author of the coffee-table cookbook Deep Run Roots — has a new gig: she’s a correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Church being canceled due to inclement weather, I happened to catch Vivian’s debut segment about the “goodness of broths.” She mentioned all types of soup from Chinese black silkie to Jewish matzo ball. But being the champion of Eastern North Carolina cuisine, Vivian closed by extolling the curative power of pot liquor — or pot likker — as I’ve always thought of it being spelled. She even had a clip of her mother drinking the stuff straight from a cup. Vivian described pot likker as “the vitamin-rich broth left over from slow stewing a pot of greens with smoked pork.” She called it “liquid gold in the American South.”
For past generations of Southerners, that description may not be an exaggeration. Family legend has it that my Edgecombe County great-grandfather, a man who died before my time, certainly loved his pot likker. The story goes that one evening he rode his mule into town to go drinking. What kind of liquor he drank or where in Rocky Mount he drank it, I don’t know, but he probably had to do his imbibing away from home, as many Southern women of the time didn’t hold to any drinking in the house. When the husband wanted alcohol, he went off the premises.
After an evening of spirits, Great-Granddaddy got on his trusty mule, a common form of transportation in the early 1900s, and the mule knowing the way, went home. Once there, Great-Granddaddy found the house dark and everyone in bed. In the kitchen was a pot with a liquid in the bottom. Aha, pot likker, he thought, drinking a bedtime dose.
The next day, Great-Granddaddy complained to his wife, “That pot likker you left out in the kitchen was the worst I ever tasted.”
“What pot likker?” she asked. “There won’t no pot likker in this house.”
It seems the man had drunk leftover dirty dishwater.
My mother loved this story. And she loved her stewed collards, probably the most common source of pot likker. She didn’t mind washing a batch of collard leaves several times to be sure she got all the dirt off and then smelling up her house as she cooked a “mess” with the required ham hock for seasoning. I never saw her drink pot likker straight like Vivian Howard’s mother or my great-granddaddy (as he supposedly did when he got hold of the real stuff), but her collards were certainly soaked in the tasty broth.
Today, I buy my collards already cooked at Gardner’s. If I forget to specify when I order my quart, I’m asked, “Hot or cold?” The folks there suspect I’m buying ahead for a dinner. They’re right. At Thanksgiving, the collard bowl was the only one completely cleaned out. Nobody asked for a swig of pot likker, though. Evidently, young folks don’t consider it “liquid gold.”